Review ♦ Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives

 About The Book

Sum is a stunning exploration of funny and unexpected afterlives that have never been considered – each presented as a vignette that offers an extraordinary lens through which to see ourselves here and now.

In one afterlife you may find that God is the size of a microbe and is unaware of your existence. In another, you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that the afterlife contains only those people whom you remember.

The stories in Sum are rooted in romance, science, and awe: a mixture of death, hope, computers, immortality, love, biology, and desire that cuts through human nature at new and exciting angles.


This book came my way through the wonderful world of Twitter. Penguin Canada was holding a contest and I was one of the lucky winners – Yay! And I ending up really enjoying this book of short stories – double Yay! Sum contains 40 little stories, or maybe they should be called hypotheses about just what may be waiting for us in the afterlife. I’m the type of person who likes questions with solid answers, however, I found this book great because there are no answers to this particular question. Different viewpoints of what happens after death have always been interesting to me because of my agnostic-atheist beliefs. Because my only true knowledge of the afterlife is the impossibility of knowing what really happens, I  find it fascinating to hear what others believe. In Sum, David Eagleman gives the reader 40 different situations to mull over, from good to bad, funny to ironic.

The story Circle of Friends is one that really makes you reconsider how you are living your life at the present time. In this imagined afterlife, you wake up to what you would normally expect. Everything and everyone that is familiar to you. It’s a world populated with things you’ve remembered from your life, but although this may seem like heaven it can also be a sort of hell. If there are no strangers, then you must forever be surrounded with people you’ve known – whether they are good memories or not. But it goes much deeper than just the people, there is also the smaller things we take for granted in our lives. In the story the narrator notices all the empty factories, because of course the products they produced are familiar to you but not the mechanics behind their production. The irony of this story is that you chose in your former life to live happily within this comfortable circle of familiarity, only to realize what you may be missing.

Metamorphosis is a scary sort of idea to me, according to this version of the afterlife there are three stages to death – first the body dies, second the body is put to it’s resting place, the third and final death is when your name is spoken for the last time. Because of family, friends, fame, and notoriety it may be quite some time before your name is last said, so until then all the dead(souls?) wait inside a giant waiting room for the unknown and mysterious Callers to let them know they are moving on to a better place. Some are happy to hear their names after hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Others are leaving sadly just as the last person to utter their name is arriving. Then there are the people who are perhaps bound forever to this eternal waiting room, men and women whose names grace Universities, hospitals or street signs. Others will live on forever within the pages of history books, or online knowledge banks. 

My favorite story of the bunch was Mary. I’ve heard of the christian god being compared to Victor Frankenstein before, and maybe this is why I enjoy this one, but it also one of the most powerfully written stories. Upon arrival in this afterlife, you come upon a woman seated in a throne, surrounded by and cared for by angels. This woman is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. God had read her novel and finally found a being who fully understood him. She wrote of a creator whose masterpiece is given the gift of life, but then realizes too late that the creation he was so proud of, is beyond his control. He must watch as his monster revels in self-destruction and eventually in anger and futility turns on it’s creator. The story is a very short one, only 2 and a half pages, but it carries such power. God describes the wonder and pride he feels for mankind as they evolve over time from basic animals to technological wizards, building cities and machines, learning and bettering themselves. But he also begins worrying as he sees the mistakes they make, building weapons, waging wars, killing and destroying.

The bright colors of His ground were darkening with Man’s blood, and there was precious little He could do to stop it. And all throughout, the voices of Man reached him with pleas for help, entreaties for aid against one another. He plugged His ears and howled against the cries of pillaged villages, the prayers of exsanguinating soldiers, the supplications from Auschwitz.

That is why He now locks Himself in His room, and at night sneaks out onto the roof with Frankenstein, reading again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic Ice. And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this: Creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.

This is a collection that I highly recommend for anyone curious about just how the afterlife may play out. The three stories I mentioned are very bleak outcomes, but don’t let that turn you off, there are also many happy, funny and weird ones too. But the most intriguing aspect of all the stories is that they really make you think. Every situation that’s described could be real, could be what’s waiting for us all. These tales could lead to many a good debate, because there is no right answer, only the opinions and beliefs of the people debating them.

David Eagleman talks with On Point host Tom Ashbrook about Sum

Click here to go to the On Point website:
Envisioning the Afterlife

Or use this link to listen to the show:
Heavens and Hells and more

About The Author 
David Eagleman, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. His forthcoming books include Dethronement: The Hidden Hegemony of the Unconscious Brain (Penguin Group Canada, 2009) and Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synethesia (MIT Press, 2009).

Title: Sum: 40 Tales Of The Afterlives
Author: David Eagleman
Book Genre: Fiction / Collection
Book Type: Hardcover 128 pages
Publisher: Viking Canada
Publication Date: February 2009

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Lenore said...

I just read The Fetch which is also about the afterlife (review up today sometime). I will definitely be getting this one!

Ladytink_534 said...

You have definitely convinced me. I'll make sure to add this one to my list. Wow, great find!

Anonymous said...

pretty cool stuff here thank you!!!!!!!