Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

This is a truly fantastic book full of profound, witty, clever and exciting musings. Each tale lasts around a couple of pages and every one offers an incredibly concise exploration of huge questions and ideas that have always concerned humanity and some raised specifically by the modern age. The brilliance of some of the ideas here warrant novels and series of films in themselves but Eagleman deftly crafts them in so few words that the debate will continue in your mind for hours afterward, filling in the gaps. I need say little else except buy this book, it’s the sort of writing that feels so true that it must have been said before, but here is said originally and skilfully in a way that can really affect your life. It’s also possible to read again and again and turn to any page and it will simultaneously be comprehensible and unfathomable. Stephen Fry’s endorsement is on the cover if mine is rightly doubted! But needless to say it’s the best thing I’ve read so far this summer. Below is my own attempt at an interpretation of a possible afterlife, in the style of Sum, but written with less enthralling and concise expression. Enjoy, but do not let it put you off the book!

Islands

When we die there is a Heaven. There is also a Hell, but you’ll be glad to know God is understanding and compassionate enough to hand out the punishments and rewards based upon a morality close to our own. Therefore the odd impure thought and vindictive act are overlooked and the ultimate punishment, refined over eternity, is reserved for the murderers and rapists. All of this is gently explained to you in the soft tones of a wise old sailor, moments after you are plucked from a perfectly calm indigo sea.

You felt many pairs of hands on you as you were rescued from the depths but now only you and he sit on deck, quite alone. All around vast swathes of blue reach in every direction, interrupted only by what must be distant land masses. You listen as an invisible sun’s tropical gaze warms, boils and snatches the beads of water from your skin. The Almighty, he says, feels He made a mistake during creation. Humanity was crafted in God’s image but His decision to encase us in physical bodies without adequate means of interaction was effectively torture for minds of divine form. The process could not be undone but a means of satisfactory compensation was devised and placed here in the afterlife in the space between death and paradise.

In mortal life, the sailor concludes, you may have felt isolated and distant, even from those you loved and who professed love in return. Trapped in their tombs of bone and flesh people were islands and could never truly touch. Before passing on through the gates of Heaven the sailor may grant you the opportunity to explore one island representing a person you knew; containing everything they ever were or could have been.

The vast majority of the recently deceased think this a marvellous idea and believer or not in their mortal lives, praise the empathy and wisdom of God. Most people also know exactly whose island they wish to explore, although some change their mind several times during the course of the journey. Some spend a great deal of time, there is no limit set, wondering whether to discover the truths of their wife, their friend, their father or their teenage love. The wise however react less positively, recoiling in fear, trembling, shedding tears fuelled by dangerous unknowns not happy, grateful emotional release. None choose to proceed directly to the gates of paradise though, even those that fear the worst. No one makes them pick an island but to enter eternity with regrets, paradise or not, would be to unleash demons upon the bliss.

So the sailor drops you at your chosen destination and you dash ashore free to explore, while the boat waits patiently to transport you to eternal happiness. Much of what you find you may already know but there are also surprises, good and bad. You may weep at their unfulfilled dreams at the foot of a palm tree, smile at memories too hazy for them to share with you glimpsed in a rock pool and bawl in betrayal as their true, unblemished view of you is uncovered in the sand. You might glow inside as you see the essence of them carried away by a monkey in the shape of a banana or feel totally alive and wanted as you wade in the stream of their passions. You’ll hack your way through thick undergrowths of superficial details only to stop now and then, caught off guard by an obvious one you overlooked or temporarily forgot. You’ll come to know each and every track and memorise vividly each detail of the clearing dedicated to you; its light, shadow, flowers and mud. There is no rush, eternity will always be there.

And yet no matter how complete the exploration no one leaves their chosen island. The gates of Heaven are glued shut and behind them God despairs in lonely squalor. His creations, not content with the total truth granted them, seek again and again the truth they wanted to find. The Angels, unemployed and wasting away, urge the Lord to erase the ocean of islands, to simply take souls as He used to and still does so for Hell. But the chorus of voices reaching Him daily convince Him that to undo the islands would be pointless, as without them He cannot claim to provide paradise.

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