Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

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World renowned neuroscientist and best selling author David Eagleman dishes up a scintillating collection of short stories (forty of them) that focus on the afterlife. This book has some serious weight behind it, each story showing a glimpse at another possible afterlife, shifting in themes from horror, to science fiction, to poetry, to the literary – this collection singlehandedly showcases the work of a true master in his field.

The collection is as mentioned forty tales long, so I won’t be covering all of them in this review, although they are each worthy of such time spent detailing how brilliant they are, instead I’ll touch on a few and provide quotes from others. The stories in here are more flash fiction, they normally cover the page and a half scope, but some are longer (maximum three pages), but what Eagleman is able to produce in each of these snapshots of afterlives is remarkable. With so many varying topics and prose that is masterfully woven together, he takes our fears, anxieties and thoughts of the afterlives and delivers time-and-time again brilliantly rendered vignettes of another way to look at the afterlife.

Sometimes funny, sometimes heart rending – every story in this collection sings with the brilliance of a masterful storyteller and makes for a quite unique perspective or perspectives of the one thing no one is certain of, what awaits us when we take our last breath.

‘In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with events reshuffled into a new order: all moments that share a quality are grouped together.’

Sum – this story is brilliantly written, it takes the format of a list where all your life experiences are categorised together, and you relive these that way. So you spend three weeks queuing and four months brushing your teeth, followed by a week looking for your lost keys. It’s ingenious and this tool works great to showcase what we prioritise in life and what meaningless tasks we do and what takes up our time. Truly masterful, the writing, the idea, the who concept!

Mary – this one has God reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, let’s just say he’s a fan, he has finally found someone who knows how difficult this thing called creation is. This was a light humoured take on the afterlife and I really enjoyed it, not because it references books (a small thing I love to see in books) but because the voice of the piece is strikingly pure!

Metamorphosis – this story holds a special place in my heart, I had previously read this and a quote appears from this in my book Juniper (in some form) and well David Eagleman was brilliant when I asked if I could use this. So, this one was a treat to re-read and for me is one of the best in the collection.

‘There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.’

Scales – ‘The atheist and the theists agree that it is only through us that He lives. When we abandon him, He dies. We felt honored at first to be the cells that form God’s body, but then it became clearer that we are God’s cancer.’ This story is again another home run for me, such great insight into such a brilliant concept, deftly executed.

Great Expectations – this reads like a Total Recall type of scenario, where the dying can upload their soul, their brain into a giant super computer and live forever, the only issue is that those running this operation don’t know if it works as no-one has ever come back – they just continue to live their afterlife as zeros and ones.

Mirrors – ‘And since you always lived inside your own head, you were better at seeing the truth about others than you ever were at seeing yourself’ just stunning, the prose in this story is on another level.

Sum is a collection of the most masterful and captivating short fiction (flash fiction) that I have read in a long time. David Eagleman is a true genius, his grip on storytelling knows no bounds and this might just be the enlightenment many have been searching for. Each story is told in crisp, honest, witty and mesmerising prose, one can’t help but fall under Eagleman’s spell. Metamorphosis is gem in this collection, but the rest are as brilliant.

Sum – Forty tales from the Afterlives is published by Canongate and is available here.

David Eagleman

David Eagleman, PhD, is a neuroscientist and internationally bestselling author. He teaches at Stanford University, is the creator and host of the Emmy-nominated television series The Brain, and is the CEO of Neosensory, a company that builds the next generation of neuroscience hardware. The author of seven other books, he lives in Silicon Valley in California.

@davideagleman | eagleman.com

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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