40 Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman
110 pages, Canongate
Review by Marc Nash
This is a work of fiction, but it's no story. It's a series of short stories, but it's no anthology. It is exactly what it says in the title; 40 tales, none longer than 4 pages, offering wonderfully imaginative, creative scenarios to posit an exact nature of the afterlife. In so doing it touches on our notions of God, reality, science, knowledge and the nature of our existence here on earth.
The book plays with notions of scale, humans being dwarfed by giant divinities, or us humans dwarfing microscopic numinous beings. Human beings as recording devices for other beings scientific experiments, an echo of Douglas Adams' joyous playfulness here, so that the afterlife is a debriefing room. Most of the stories see a schism between us mortals and the gods awaiting us in the afterlife. The gods who have set us in motion on earth to whatever end, but where we have gone our own way, or fallen into unpredictable sideroads, usually around love. In "Narcissus" the 'Cartographers' who set us in motion with our eyes, ears and noses as sensory recording devices, despair that we use the lenses of our eyes for scutinising not the landscape for their maps, but into the eye lenses of our felllow species, "an ironic way to trivialise the technology". In "Quantum" every life choice you turned down you can now act out simultaneously in the afterlife. You protest this is too much to grapple with so the angel offers you a simple scenario: you locked in a room with just your lover—which you gladly accept: "You are simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else... she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else. 'Thank you', you tell the angel. 'This is what I'm used to'".
Absent, unapproachable gods, shunned gods, gods who have long abandoned their original creation project. In all of these, mankind is wobbling between greatness and insignificance. Mankind holds the key if only we could perceive it. The 40 tales are offered up as fictions rather than gospel. They are sketches, not without their lyricism, but they are to prompt and provoke thought, rather than supply any answer. Some of the stories see both us and the beings who populate the afterlife, but cut adrift from one another due to an inability to communicate as much as a discrepancy in scale. In "Giantess" a race finally work out how to send a message to the divinity, but only succeed in provoking an immune response from her that destroys their civilisation. The last survivor begs the human race to keep its din down so as not to draw the same reaction.
Eagleman is a neuroscientist by trade, but here clearly shows a literary skill in drawing on both science, poetic metaphor and myth to weave together a wonderfully fresh vision. In "Mary", Mary Shelley sits on the throne in the afterlife, because only she in "Frankenstein" has evidenced a mortal's understanding of the situation our Creator finds himself in when his creations have got away from him.
I would recommend this delightful little book to the readers of any genre. It is quite simply the sum of our lives. Told in just 4-page-long stories.