Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives by David Eagleman


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

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

Death is one of those subjects that doesn’t make for the most comfortable conversation, and yet if there’s one thing that unites us all, it’s that at some stage we are all going to die. Every one of the four people reading this with me is sadly included; at some stage: all dead. Dead as a dodo. Gone. Horrible thought, but true (if you believe conventional science and wisdom, that is). In Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, death is not a dark, joy-sapping concept; it’s occasion for an imaginative free-for-all.

As a non-religious kind of reader, books about the afterlife are not at the top of my wish list, and yet Sum, an intriguing little paperback of short stories with a come-hither cover, demanded attention. I’ll just try the first story, I thought, and two pages later I was determined to read the whole thing, because that first story, “Sum”, was like a jolt of electricity. It posited the afterlife as a place where we live out all of our experiences back to back, so that all of the time we spend sleeping is rolled into one and experienced in a big splurge, the same for waiting in queues, clipping toenails, zipping zippers, and enduring heartbreak. It was the perfect heady mix of funny and poignant.

Each story in Sum presents a different version of the afterlife, and some readers have pointed out that the versions are mutually exclusive, because for one to be true, the others must not be true. But it doesn’t feel as if Sum is offering solid theories on what will really happen to us after death, rather it seems to be showing us the scope of the possibilities, because if the concept of Heaven and Hell is believable, then why not go the whole hog and open our minds up to everything that we can possibly imagine?

The stories are between two and four pages in length, and range from the absurd to the profound, from the hopeful to the unnerving. My favourite stories were: “Microbe,” where God is the size of a bacterium; “Death Switch,” a wry commentary on the computer age; “Spirals”, in which the Creator is a species of small, dim-witted creatures, utterly confused by their creations, and finally “Mary,” in which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sits on a throne, as God is a big fan of her novel, Frankenstein.

Sum is the weirdest and most imaginative piece of fiction that I have encountered. There is a meticulous, forensic quality to the telling of these tales that makes even the most outrageous afterlife yarn seem somehow feasible. More than this, I found that after reading these stories some of the taboo of death was diminished for me. I allowed myself to think about death for a while and managed to do so without feeling terror or depression. The author has presumably done the same and let his mind roam free over the possibilities of what might occur after we’ve taken our last breath. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and one has the impression that to him, death, that great unknown, is not a petrifying concept, but appears rather to be a fascinating subject worthy of deep contemplation and imagination.

This quirky little book of short stories is perhaps not for the recently bereaved or the ultra-religious, but it might well tickle your fancy if you’re drawn to philosophy, happen to be of a sci-fi-entific bent or if you’d simply enjoy opening your mind to a different kind of reality.

Canongate Books, ISBN-13: 978-1847674272, 128 pages, £9.99.

12 comments on “Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives by David Eagleman

  1. Eve
    April 8, 2009

    Oh this sounds great Lisa, I really think I would like this book. Not normally reading adult fiction (I just don’t have the time!) I think I could quite happily read stories of 2 to 4 pages in length. Plus, I am quite fascinated by afterlife type things.

    You have intrigued me muchly 🙂

  2. It’s quite the remarkable book, isn’t it? I was a little sceptical at first, and then I read it, and it was WOW! What a cool idea.

  3. Moira
    April 8, 2009

    I can second Lisa’s review …

    It’s an extraordinary concept, beautifully carried out.

  4. Tom Vowler
    April 8, 2009

    So that’s twelve consecutive years staring at a flashing cursor on a blank white page…Hmmm.

  5. Lisa
    April 8, 2009

    Thanks for the comments, people!

    Eve, I reckon you’d love this. Some of the stories reminded me a bit of your first novel in tone.

    Andrea & Moira, yes, it is certainly one of those extraordinary WOW books. I think I’m going to read it again.

    Tom, me too. Plus five years straight of pressing “Send and Receive” whilst waiting for news…

  6. Jackie
    April 8, 2009

    Though I got nervous just reading the review, I must admit to being intrigued. I’ve always thought of Heaven as being like the best moments you’ve ever experienced, maybe not identical, but on the order of them. For instance, bike rides on a summer day, playing ball with a dog, a great day at the fair, etc. It would be interesting to see other ideas of the afterlife & this one sounds like it’s creative. Thanks for the review of a really unusual book.

  7. Maisha
    April 9, 2009

    I absolutely loved this book. Such depth of creativity & imagination. Bravo! I was only half-surprised when I found out Eagleman was a brain scientist — you’d have to be amazing smart to write something so powerfully simple. This book should be required reading, especially for those people (the majority?) who have a sense that they know all the answers.
    Thanks for the review!

  8. Pingback: Interview with Canongate – Publisher of the Year. Lisa Glass talks to Jamie Byng. « Vulpes Libris

  9. John Self
    June 9, 2009

    I missed this review first time around! Anyone who likes Sum should try Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (in fact Lightman is quote on the back of Sum) and Italo Calvino’s Invisible CitiesSum clearly owes a big debt of inspiration to both.

  10. Lisa
    June 9, 2009

    Thanks, John. I’ll definitely check those out.

  11. Pingback: THOUGHTS FROM AN AUDIOBOOK VIRGIN: Sampling Sum by David Eagleman. Narrated by Stephen Fry, Emily Blunt, Nick Cave et al. « Vulpes Libris

  12. Mukesh Kumar
    March 18, 2018

    I’m lucky

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This entry was posted on April 8, 2009 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: short stories.



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