Book: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

I first discovered David Eagleman in a 2011 New Yorker article titled The Possibilian that Amy had torn off and put in my “to read” pile. It was a fascinating long article on his research, life, and ideas about time and death especially around the question, “Why does time slow down when we fear for our lives?”

In the section about studying drummers (yup – it’s a wide ranging article), Brian Eno is introduced. I’ve been intrigued with Eno ever since college when I listened to his Ambient albums over and over.

“Eno first met Eagleman two years ago, after a publisher he knew sent him a book of Eagleman’s short stories, called “Sum.” Modelled on the cerebral fiction of Borges and Calvino, “Sum” is a natural outgrowth of Eagleman’s scientific concerns—another spin of the lazy Susan that has circled back to the subject of time. Each of its forty chapters is a kind of thought experiment, describing a different version of the afterlife. Eagleman establishes a set of initial conditions, then lets the implications unfold logically.”

Yup – that got me. I downloaded Sum and read it. A spin of the lazy Susan is a great metaphor for it as each short story is a few pages long, totally random relative to the story before and after, and each about a different view of the afterlife.

While a few of them are “meh”, most are intriguing, surprising, depressing, unsettling, or powerful. It’s one of those books that stimulated me in a totally different way than normal. It wasn’t philosophy, but it wasn’t fiction, but it wasn’t science, nor was it science fiction. While defying categorization, it stimulated a lot of thought.

And, if you’d like a nice five minutes with Eagleman and Colbert, it’s a fun one. “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me” followed by “Are you high?” Nothing like a Pink Floyd reference by a neuroscientist.

  • I’ve heard Elon Musk in an interview by Vanity Fair also say that he postulates there is an extremely high probability that we’re currently in a simulation from an advanced civilization from the future.

    I wonder whether Elon and David Eagleman have gotten this idea from the same source, or whether they have independently arrived at this conclusion.

    I haven’t read Sum, but on the topic of the afterlife, I’ve met someone (who I trust to be telling the truth) explaining to me how she had been clinically dead for a short period of time during an operation and was floating above the room, close to the ceiling, and clearly perceiving and observing the situation.

    There was something about the way she said it that convinced me.

    That would mean we are more than sum of our brain cells…

    • If you haven’t read around the topic before Mario, I thoroughly recommend taking a look at Nick Bostrum’s Simulation Argument ( Compelling stuff!

      • That answers my question, thank you. BTW, the link wouldn’t open, but it came up with a search.

        • Thanks for pointing that out Mario – I’ve now edited the link above.

  • Highly recommend Incognito by David Eagleman (think I mentioned this one to you before).

    Very interesting perspective as to “whose really in charge up there”.

  • I’d highly recommend the Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s work. Especially, his collection of short stories – The Nimrod Flipout.

    Also, Italo Calvino’s Numbers in the Dark is a personal favourite.

  • Sam

    Brad, wanted to thank you for this. Reading through it now a couple short stories at a sitting. “Stimulated me in a totally different way than normal” is proving very true. I view this book as a great testament to human agency as well. I mean, who wakes up one day and thinks to himself, “Maybe it will be fun to make up 40 alternate scenarios of the afterlife, bind them into a little book, and put it out into the world?” Apparently David Eagleman does. Perhaps that parallel with an entrepreneur’s (or VC’s) view of their own agency is also part of why you were drawn to it.

    • Ooh – that’s a fun idea!