Because all of life is stories.
Before today’s review I would just like to extend my thoughts and prayers to all of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. It isn’t right that anyone should ever have to go through times like this, but know that none of you are going through this alone. We all stand united behind you. Furthermore, it is truly heartening to see the amount of people that ran towards the explosion with a single minded determination: Help. Through this tragedy we have seen heroes rise, doctors work tirelessly throughout the night to save lives, people open their homes to complete and total strangers, and marathoners continuing to run to Mass. Gen and other nearby hospitals to donate blood. In times like these, we see the true colors of our people. My deepest thanks go out to them. And the people of Boston remain in my prayers.
Today’s book is a collection. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is a series of forty flash fiction stories all authored by noted neuroscientist David Eagleman. If you don’t know what flash fiction is, here’s a quick bare bones primer: A flash fiction is a short story. While short stories can sometimes run upwards of 50 to 100 pages flash fiction very rarely surpasses three to five. So getting something poignant down in that amount of time is a challenge. And Eagleman attempts to do it 40 times in the span of less than 200 pages.
So what do we have to say about Sum? One of the biggest things I enjoyed about this book is it is written irrespective of religion. That isn’t to say there aren’t Gods and Goddesses aplenty, because there are dozens. However, they are all written from the point of view of an outside narrator, one who doesn’t seem to align with any one religion. The result is a refreshing hundred plus pages of speculation that succeeds in not letting dogma get in the way of its point, or it’s fun.
We never learn the narrators name, or indeed the name of any central protagonist in any story. But the cast of characters is wide, ranging in appearances from Mary Shelley to Apollo to Odin and Zenpat and even little greenish men. The role of God is played by many different faces as well. In one story God is an elderly faming couple, in another a mother and father, in others God is an alien, or bacteria, or a girl obsessed with Frankenstein. The title is treated with respect and wonder, and all who play the part create a believeable and empathetic character.
In many of the stories though, we enter the afterlife to find that there is no God, or if there is one we never see hide nor hair of him. You find yourself reliving your life, though everything is done in segments; all the pain at once, then all the joy, then all the time you spent on the toilet. Or maybe you find yourself an actor in the dreams of the living, or in the company of all the selves you could have been. Eagleman’s range and imagination astounds.
Some of the stories are better than others, some of them are wonderful and amazing, others fall just a little short of the mark. The vast majority of them are deep and thoughtful, and even the ones that don’t make you stop reading and genuflect are generally enjoyable. This book is always going to be one that falls somewhere in my top ten lists. They say you should never lose your sense of wonder. Reading Eagleman’s book, and listening to him speak on science space, I can see that he never has.
And the world is better for it.