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Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Written by David EaglemanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Eagleman

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On Sale: February 10, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-37802-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

At once funny, wistful and unsettling, Sum is a dazzling exploration of unexpected afterlives—each presented as a vignette that offers a stunning lens through which to see ourselves in the here and now.  In one afterlife, you may find that God is the size of a microbe and unaware of your existence. In another version, you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that God is a married couple, or that the universe is running backward, or that you are forced to live out your afterlife with annoying versions of who you could have been.  With a probing imagination and deep understanding of the human condition, acclaimed neuroscientist David Eagleman offers wonderfully imagined tales that shine a brilliant light on the here and now.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Sum

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.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in
line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.



Egalitaire

In the afterlife you discover that God understands the complexities of life. She had originally submitted to peer pressure when She structured Her universe like all the other gods had, with a binary categorization of people into good and evil. But it didn’t take long for Her to realize that humans could be good in many ways and simultaneously corrupt and meanspirited in other ways. How was She to arbitrate who goes to Heaven and who to Hell? Might not it be possible, She considered, that a man could be an embezzler and still give to charitable causes? Might not a woman be an adulteress but bring pleasure and security to two men’s lives? Might not a child unwittingly divulge secrets that splinter a family? Dividing the population into two categories—good and bad—seemed like a more reasonable task when She was younger, but with experience these decisions became more difficult. She composed complex formulas to weigh hundreds of factors, and ran computer programs that rolled out long strips of paper with eternal decisions. But Her sensitivities revolted at this automation—and when the computer generated a decision She disagreed with, She took the opportunity to kick out the plug in rage. That afternoon She listened to the grievances of the dead from two warring nations. Both sides had suffered, both sides had legitimate grievances, both pled their cases earnestly. She covered Her ears and moaned in misery. She knew Her humans were multidimensional, and She could no longer live under the rigid architecture of Her youthful choices.

Not all gods suffer over this; we can consider ourselves lucky that in death we answer to a God with deep sensitivity to the byzantine hearts of Her creations. For months She moped around Her living room in Heaven, head drooped like a bulrush, while the lines piled up. Her advisors advised Her to delegate the decision making, but She loved Her humans too much to leave them to the care of anyone else.

In a moment of desperation the thought crossed Her mind to let everyone wait on line indefinitely, letting them work it out on their own. But then a better idea struck Her generous spirit. She could afford it: She would grant everyone, every last human, a place in Heaven. After all, everyone had something good inside; it was part of the design specifications. Her new plan brought back the bounce to Her gait, returned the color to Her cheeks. She shut down the operations in Hell, fired the Devil, and brought every last human to be by Her side in Heaven. Newcomers or old-timers, nefarious or righteous: under the new system, everyone gets equal time to speak with Her. Most people find Her a little garrulous and oversolicitous, but She cannot be accused of not caring.

The most important aspect of Her new system is that everyone is treated equally. There is no longer fire for some and harp music for others. The afterlife is no longer defined by cots versus waterbeds, raw potatoes versus sushi, hot water versus champagne. Everyone is a brother to all, and for the first time an idea has been realized that never came to fruition on Earth: true equality.

The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote.

So God sits on the edge of Her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.



Circle of Friends

When you die, you feel as though there were some subtle change, but everything looks approximately the same. You get up and brush your teeth. You kiss your spouse and kids and leave for the office. There is less traffic than normal. The rest of your building seems less full, as though it’s a holiday. But everyone in your office is here, and they greet you kindly. You feel strangely popular. Everyone you run into is someone you know. At some point, it dawns on you that this is the afterlife: the world is only made up of people you’ve met before.

It’s a small fraction of the world population—about 0.00002 percent—but it seems like plenty to you.

It turns out that only the people you remember are here. So the woman with whom you shared a glance in the elevator may or may not be included. Your second-grade teacher is here, with most of the class. Your parents, your cousins, and your spectrum of friends through the years. All your old lovers. Your boss, your grandmothers, and the waitress who served your food each day at lunch. Those you dated, those you almost dated, those you longed for. It is a blissful opportunity to spend quality time with your one thousand connections, to renew fading ties, to catch up with those you let slip away.

It is only after several weeks of this that you begin to feel forlorn. You wonder what’s different as you saunter through the vast quiet parks with a friend or two. No strangers grace the empty park benches. No family unknown to you throws bread crumbs for the ducks and makes you smile because of their laughter.

As you step into the street, you note there are no crowds, no buildings teeming with workers, no distant cities bustling, no hospitals running 24/7 with patients dying and staff rushing, no trains howling into the night with sardined passengers on their way home. Very few foreigners. You begin to consider all the things unfamiliar to you. You’ve never known, you realize, how to vulcanize rubber to make a tire. And now those factories stand empty. You’ve never known how to fashion a silicon chip from beach sand, how to launch rockets out of the atmosphere, how to pit olives or lay railroad tracks. And now those industries are shut down.

The missing crowds make you lonely.You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.


Descent of Species

In the afterlife, you are treated to a generous opportunity: you can choose whatever you would like to be in the next life. Would you like to be a member of the opposite sex? Born into royalty? A philosopher with bottomless profundity? A soldier facing triumphant battles?

But perhaps you’ve just returned here from a hard life. Perhaps you were tortured by the enormity of the decisions and responsibilities that surrounded you, and now there’s only one thing you yearn for: simplicity. That’s permissible. So for the next round, you choose to be a horse. You covet the bliss of that simple life: afternoons of grazing in grassy fields, the handsome angles of your skeleton and the prominence of your muscles, the peace of the slow-flicking tail or the steam rifling through your nostrils as you lope across snow-blanketed plains.

You announce your decision. Incantations are muttered, a wand is waved, and your body begins to metamorphose into a horse. Your muscles start to bulge; a mat of strong hair erupts to cover you like a comfortable blanket in winter. The thickening and lengthening of your neck immediately feels normal as it comes about. Your carotid arteries grow in diameter, your fingers blend hoofward, your knees stiffen, your hips strengthen, and meanwhile, as your skull lengthens into its new shape, your brain races in its changes: your cortex retreats as your cerebellum grows, the homunculus melts man to horse, neurons redirect, synapses unplug and replug on their way to equestrian patterns, and your dream of understanding what it is like to be a horse gallops toward you from the distance. Your concern about human affairs begins to slip away, your cynicism about human behavior melts, and even your human way of thinking begins to drift away from you.

Suddenly, for just a moment, you are aware of the problem you overlooked. The more you become a horse, the more you forget the original wish. You forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse.

This moment of lucidity does not last long. But it serves as the punishment for your sins, a Promethean entrails-pecking moment, crouching half-horse halfman, with the knowledge that you cannot appreciate the destination without knowing the starting point; you cannot revel in the simplicity unless you remember the alternatives. And that’s not the worst of your revelation. You realize that the next time you return here, with your thick horse brain, you won’t have the capacity to ask to become a human again. You won’t understand what a human is. Your choice to slide down the intelligence ladder is irreversible. And just before you lose your final human faculties, you painfully ponder what magnificent extraterrestrial creature, enthralled with the idea of finding a simpler life, chose in the last round to become a human.


From the Hardcover edition.
David Eagleman|Author Q&A

About David Eagleman

David Eagleman - Sum

Photo © Sharon Steinmann

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. His scientific research has been published in journals from Science to Nature, and his neuroscience books include Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, Why the Net Matters, and the forthcoming Live-Wired. He is also the author of the internationally best-selling book of fiction Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.

Author Q&A

Tell us a bit about Sum.
Sum is a work of literary fiction composed of forty mutually exclusive stories. Each story offers a different reason for our existence and the meaning of life and death. These are not serious proposals; they’re satirical and thought provoking lenses through which to see our lives at new angles. Can you give us some examples? In different stories, God is a married couple, God is a committee, God is a species of dimwitted creatures, or God is the size of a bacterium. In other stories there is no God at all and people in the afterlife battle over stories of His non-existence. In other stories we are mobile rovers built by planetary cartographers, or we are ten-dimensional creatures taking a vacation in three-dimensional bodies, or our life runs backwards after the expansion of the universe reverses and you get to see all the details you mis-remembered.

How long did it take you to write Sum?
Seven years. I wrote over 75 stories, but only included those in the book that created the right combination.

Tell us about the title.
I chose Sum for three reasons. First, it’s Latin for “I am,” as in Cogito ergo sum. Second, it’s related to the Greek term for the highest, as in summa cum laude, or the English word summit. Third, the point of this book is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As you read the stories, it becomes clear that they are mutually exclusive and that there’s something bigger emerging from adding them all together.

What is that something bigger?
It's the appreciation that there are a lot of possibilities available for what’s going on out there. I’m often surprised by the number of people who seem to have total certainty about the religious stories they were raised on. They have no doubt about the absolute truth of their story, even though every other adherent in every other religion shares that same certainty and knows that all other religions are patently untrue. I’m dismayed at how little we explore the giant number of other possibilities. There are ideas far beyond the things you’ll find in anyone’s bible, and there’s too little dialog about this. So I don’t think the important thing should be to commit to a particular story when there’s no evidence supporting any one over the others. The important thing should be to explore and celebrate the vast possibilities. The mutual exclusivity of the stories in Sum are designed to allow this. The aim of this book is to swing a flashlight around the possibility space.

So do you believe any of the stories in Sum could be true?
None are meant to be serious proposals. The only serious proposal is the emergent message of the book: that there are many possibilities, and we should be discussing the size of that space instead of battling over the details of the pitifully few stories that our ancestors entertained.

But do you consider any of the stories in Sum more probable than any others?
They are all equally improbable.

Do you believe in anything?
I believe in possibility.

Is that compatible with your scientific career?
It is the heart of a scientific career. Real science always operates by holding lots of interesting possibilities in mind and working to see which one is more supported by the data. Sometimes it’s hard or impossible to get data that weighs in—and in those cases you simply hold the possibilities. You don’t commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to privilege one over the others.

But as a scientist, do you think we may be able to someday answer these questions about lifes meaning?
Yes, maybe someday. I am not a mysterian, who believes that science will never be able to shed light on the deep questions. But I certainly don’t think we’ll answer these in my brief twinkling of a 21st century lifetime. I’ve devoted my entire adult life to scientific pursuit, because if you want to figure out what’s going on this world, there is no better way than to directly study the blueprints. And science over the past 400 years has been tremendously successful. We reached the moon and eradicated smallpox and built the Net and tripled life spans—and we’ve increasingly tapped into those mind-blowing blueprints, and they’re deeper and more beautiful than anyone could have guessed. But in the end, when you reach the end of the pier of everything we know in science, you find that it has taken us only part way, and beyond that all you see is uncharted water. Beyond the end of the pier lies all the rest, all the mystery about our deeply strange existence. The equivalence of mass and energy, dark matter, multiple spatial dimensions, how to build consciousness from pieces and parts, what live and death are about, and so on. I have no doubt that we will continue to build the pier out, several new slats in each generation, but we have no guarantee how far we’ll get. And that ocean’s pretty big. There may be some domains that are beyond the tools of science—perhaps temporarily, perhaps always.

Does your book belong to the group of recent books by the new athiests?
I don’t really see it that way. The recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and others are brilliant and insightful, but they also feed a common misconception that scientists don’t have the capacity to gambol around beyond the available data. The truth is that good scientists are among the most open-minded people. Science is nothing but careful thinking, and careful thinking encourages an appreciation of the complexity of the world, and this complexity encourages us to maintain several possibilities in our head at once. In a single lifetime, we may have no way to disambiguate these possibilities. And that’s ok. A scientist may tend to favor one story over the others, but will always be careful to concede uncertainty and maintain a willingness to change the balance with new, incoming information. As an example, there are two very different interpretations about the reality underlying quantum physics. It is possible that there will be no way to ever know which is correct, or if instead some entirely new theory is correct. And that ambiguity is accepted as part of the enormity of the mysteries we face. Those are often the terms of the agreement we have with Mother Nature.

Are you personally an atheist?
It depends what you mean by that. As a teenager I was an atheist. I realize now that my drive to talk with people about atheism was nothing more than a desire to get them to admit that something else could be possible other than the view that they absorbed from their parents or their community or their culture. I guess I’ve never lost that drive. It is not difficult to recognize that if you’re born in Saudi Arabia, your nervous system is likely to absorb a belief in Islam; if you’re in India, you love Hinduism; most Americans soak up Christianity, and so on. Brains in different locations are exposed to different contexts, and they come to believe the local stories with equal passion and fervor. After childhood indoctrination people will vigorously defend their story against all the other stories, which seem to them fundamentally ridiculous. For many people, this connection to the numinous is an important part of their lives. But to be members of a larger community, I think it’s an important exercise to stretch ourselves mentally to consider all the things we do not really know.

Do you think some form of religion is possible?

I think most scientists are, in some sense, religious. But not in the traditional way. As the philosophers Russell and Whitehead pointed out, spiritual impulses should be built upon the bedrock of what we already know. We know quite a bit about the size of the cosmos at this point, and quite a bit about the biological algorithms in our bodies, and the strange quantum behavior of atoms, and so on. So the idea is to use this knowledge as a springboard for any reasonable religion, instead of books written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, extra-solar planets, bacterial infection, information theory, electricity, the Big Bang and Big Crunch, or even other cultures or literatures or landscapes. Many traditional stories are beautiful, and they often crystallize hard-won wisdom. But in my opinion, the traditional religions are likely to be too small-thinking to possibly be correct. We know so much more now. So, yes, I think it’s possible and even desirable to have a deep awe for the mysteries around us, and one can call this a form of religion.

So would you call yourself an agnostic?
No. As it is commonly used, I find the term agnostic weak. It is usually used to mean “I’m not really certain whether the guy with the long beard on the clouds exists or does not exist.” But there are more exciting directions to pursue—namely, seeking entirely new frameworks we haven’t yet considered.

Do you call yourself anything?
I call myself a possibilian. The book I'm working on for 2010 is entitled Why I am a Possibilian.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Eagleman is a true original. Read Sum and be amazed."—Time Magazine

“You will not read a more dazzling book this year than David Eagleman's Sum. If you read it and aren't enchanted I will eat 40 hats.” --Stephen Fry

“Delightful, thought-provoking… full of touching moments and glorious wit.”—Alexander McCall Smith, The New York Times Book Review

"Bracing, provocative, fun. . . . It challenges and teases as it spins out different parables of possibility."--Houston Chronicle

"This is a scientist and exceptionally talented writer using the idea of the afterlife to reflect on our innermost fears and desires and also as a way of dissecting how we live." —Tampa Tribune

“This delightful, thought-provoking little collection belongs to that category of strange, unclassifiable books that will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned. It is full of tangential insights into the human condition and poetic thought experiments . . . . It is also full of touching moments and glorious wit of the sort one only hopes will be in copious supply on the other side.”—The New York Times

"Teeming, writhing with imagination."--Los Angeles Times

"David Eagleman's Sum envisions a multiplicity of afterlives: pasts relived in shuffle mode, cast in the dreams of others, and dictated by our credit card reports.”—Vanity Fair

"Imaginative and inventive." —Wall Street Journal

"It takes someone ridiculously smart to write something as deceptively simple as SUM." —Denver Daily News

"With both a childlike sense of wonder and a trenchant flair for irony, the Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist generously offers forty variations on the theme of God and the afterlife, imagining what each of us might find when we shuffle off this mortal coil." —Texas Monthly

"A small gem of a book.... Who'd have thought that a young neuroscientist would have so much story in him?" —The Globe and Mail, Toronto

"Imaginative riffs that are simultaneously improvisational and well-considered. . . . Challenges you to leave well-traveled paths of belief and think in bold, new ways." —Arizona Republic

"These images of the Great Beyond are more complex, sometimes whimsical, always veering off in an unexpected direction. In total they present a realm where you are certain to learn something about the life you just left behind."—Deseret News

“With both a childlike sense of wonder and a trenchant flair for irony, the Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist generously offers forty variations on the theme of God and the afterlife, imagining what each of us might find when we shuffle off this mortal coil.... Sum is great fun—sort of a brainy parlor game in print--and a modest satire aimed at zealots who define heaven and God to serve their own ends. It is also a reminder that when it comes to our knowledge of the hereafter, we have loads of faith but not a scintilla of proof.”—Texas Monthly

“Wow.”—New York Observer

“Stunningly original…. Sum has the unaccountable, jaw-dropping quality of genius."—Geoff Dyer, The Observer

"Unsettling and reassuring, godly and godless....Excitement pervades the whole volume."—The National Post
 
"As rigorous and imaginative as the writings of Italo Calvino and Alan Lightman." –Nature

SUM is terrific. It’s such a good idea that I was grinding my teeth all the way through wishing I’d thought of it first. The inventiveness, the clarity and wit of the prose, the calm air of moral understanding that pervades the whole thing, add up to something completely original. I hope SUM will be the great big hit it deserves to be.” —Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass

“Witty, bright, sharp and unexpected . . . as surprising a book as I’ve read for years.”
—Brian Eno

“David Eagleman’s SUM is a captivating collection of vignettes that portray possible afterlives–creatively conceived and deftly described. Each tale imagines an unexpected reality that might await us, possible worlds that illuminate life with colors rarely encountered.”—Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe

SUM is an imaginative and provocative book that gives new perspectives on how to view ourselves and our place in the world.”—Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams

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