SUM: Forty tales from the afterlives

After you’ve gone, you could regret it

By Judy Jackson, March 11, 2010

By David Eagleman
Canongate, £9.99

Orthodox Jews believe in the afterlife. Aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins do not. In the middle is David Eagleman, who says: "both seem to have complete certainty about things they can't possibly be certain about." A neuroscientist by day, Eagleman has spent his evenings concocting scenarios of what Heaven might look like and who (or what) will be the Deity who welcomes us.

The cover of SUM, a short collection of stories, depicts a door slightly ajar to show a chink of light. Through this door we discover many possibilities, each taking no more than a few pages. In Absence, Heaven is dilapidated and God has "popped out" for the afternoon. Reins has God delegating his tasks to a committee.

Is it irreverent to imagine God curling up with a book in the evenings, Frankenstein his preferred reading? Or to suggest that God ran out of miracles after the Red Sea and is now a kind of children's conjurer, unable to perform for a sophisticated adult audience?

Eagleman imagines another deity, neither male nor female but a celestial married couple, watching with dismay as their creations battle each other. He also conceives of humans equipped with "camera eyes", given the task of mapping every corner of the planet.

Is it irreverent to see God as a kind of children's conjurer?

When we eventually meet our creators (there are many of them, called the Cartographers), we will be called to account. Although we have roamed far with our "cameras", plotting above the clouds, below the seas, on to the moon, we are a disappointment. We have spent our energies building shelters in which we cluster together.

The head engineer is fired: he has created a marvel that only takes pictures of itself.

Life in the Great Beyond is not always easy. One version of Eagleman's Heaven - Angst - portrays the dead as gigantic creatures given the task of holding up the universe. In another, the inhabitants sit in lounges, watching TV monitors, nourished with coffee and biscuits, training their attention on the minute doings of their descendants.

In the title story, we live the events of our lives, not as moments in a day, but in concentrated blocks, so we will spend six days clipping our toenails, five months flipping through magazines on the toilet, two years sitting bored in an airport terminal.

In Metamorphosis we learn that death is only final when your name is spoken or remembered for the last time on Earth; in Reversal, once we die, we rewind our lives to live them backwards.

On Friday evenings, Orthodox shul-goers might ponder on Yigdal, promising retribution to evil-doers and happiness to those who do good. David Eagleman's stories make us appreciate the lives we are living now. He brings humour and perception to his scenes of the afterlife. This may be science fiction, but it expands our universe in a delightfully intriguing way.

Judy Jackson is a food writer and novelist

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011