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REVIEW: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

REVIEW SUMMARY: Fun, piecemeal excursions into what it might be like after you die.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Forty thought-experiments about what happens in the afterlife.


PROS: Interesting and imaginative speculations, sometimes with added life lessons; Short, contained chapters make it the perfect carry-along book to consume in life’s in-between moments (like waiting in line).

CONS: Does not lend itself well to long reading sessions.

BOTTOM LINE: Eagleman’s philosophical musings will keep your own mind speculating long after the short chapters have ended.

Do you ever wonder what happens in the afterlife? So does David Eagleman. He’s written a book called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives which explores that very topic.

This short book is arranged in forty second-person point-of-view chapters, each one a new thought experiment on what the afterlife might be like. It would be no fun if it were just a boring old Paradise, so Eagleman makes them more interesting by spicing them up with some unique idea. The scenarios are diverse enough to stay fresh, though some do overlap. In many of them, for example, there is no afterlife at all, but a recreation of life as usual, albeit with a few unique spins on what we experience here on Earth.

Some of the set-ups are quite interesting, though, and remain with me weeks after reading them. One in particular that sticks out (the opening titular chapter) is how the afterlife is just life reorganized, except mundane events are grouped together and experienced all at once. So you spend, say, six consecutive days clipping your nails then move on to two hundred consecutive days of showering.

Eagleman, a neuroscientist, posits other fun (and not so fun) scenarios as well, including:

  • A Wizard-of-Oz-like adventure where your expectation of the Almighty is met with disappointment.
  • Heaven being a place for sinners.
  • Choosing one thing about your life you would change, then getting a do-over.
  • Learning the reason why God doesn’t live on Earth.
  • Learning that the afterlife is a lie and souls live on through computer “death switches”.
  • Learning that humans are merely data collectors for interstellar Cartographers.

Sum is ultimately an interesting read. Eagleman’s philosophical musings, often culminating in life lessons, will keep your own mind speculating long after the short chapters have ended. For optimum results, each chapter is best read apart from the others, giving them time to sink in and find purchase in the imagination.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on REVIEW: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

  1. I just read this book last night from the library.  I am considering buying it as one of those books that sits on the shelf that you can pull down and read from time to time.  The short chapters can easily result in much “philosophical musing.”  I agree it might be better taken in small chunks instead of a single read to give yourself time to ponder the ideas contained in each chapter.

    Good review.  Thought I might 4 star it based on your review.



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