:: Article

When You’re Gone

By Max Dunbar.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman, Canongate 2009

What happens after we die? The question has only really been tackled by the great religions, and their response is not always of value. There’s always more emphasis on hell – Dante’s Inferno resonates with such force it drowns out the rest of the Divine Comedy. When describing heaven, religious authorities are less clear. Outside the Islamic version, which comes off like a badly dubbed Orientalist soft porn film, what actually goes on in paradise? The early Christian writer Tertullian claimed that one of the main pleasures of heaven would be derived from laughing at the people in hell. Beyond this, nirvana appears to be a nullity. And this has rarely been challenged.

In Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, neuroscientist David Eagleman has dreamt up forty distinct versions of the hereafter. There are more ideas in this small, powerful book than you will find in a thousand pages of theological treatise or science fiction. I can’t see anyone, having read it, ever again taking seriously the dusky houris of paradise, or hell’s lavish gore.

Where to start? In ‘Circle of Friends’ the afterlife consists of earth, populated only by the people you met when you were alive: ‘no crowds, no buildings teeming with workers, no distant cities bustling… Very few foreigners.’ On the one hand, it’s thrilling to explore all that might have developed from every missed connection; on the other, you miss the experience of strangers. In ‘Subjunctive’, you meet every person you could possibly have been, the results of every single life choice. ‘Metamorphosis’ posits that true death occurs when someone alive speaks your name for the last time. Until then, you’re waiting in an airport bar; there are kings, artists and other notables who have been there for centuries.

I have barely done justice to the wonder and magic of this book. It’s a work of astonishing imaginative force, full of sadness and compulsion. I’m not sure how much of Sum derives from Eagleman’s work as a scientist, although I think science is as capable as art of mystery and storytelling. The afterlife closest to reality is explored in ‘Death Switch’, where every human transaction is relayed by email. Here Eagleman draws on the implications of online social networking:

When an alien civilisation eventually bumps into Earth, they will immediately be able to understand what humans were about, because what will remain is the network of relationships; who loved whom, who competed, who cheated, who laughed together over road trips and holiday dinners. Each person’s ties to bosses, brothers, and lovers are etched into the electronic communiqués. The death switches simulate the society so completely that the entire social network is reconstructable. The planet’s memories survive in zeroes and ones.

Death is a part of life, and Eagleman suggests that death will prove to be as strange and complicated as life. I consider this grounds for optimism.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 27th, 2009.