Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

★★★★☆ (4/5)

I’ve enjoyed this book for purely literary reasons. I coerced my mind into employing science fiction inspired imagery which made the short stories fun to read. Otherwise, this is a dangerous book with steadfast atheistic notions, employed through highfalutin metaphors & “wisdom” of humanity and death.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next
  • In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.
  • You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.
  • You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.
  • The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote. So God sits on the edge of Her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.
  • You begin to consider all the things unfamiliar to you. You’ve never known, you realize, how to vulcanize rubber to make a tire. And now those factories stand empty. You’ve never known how to fashion a silicon chip from beach sand, how to launch rockets out of the atmosphere, how to pit olives or lay railroad tracks. And now those industries are shut down.

The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.

  • Suddenly, for just a moment, you are aware of the problem you overlooked. The more you become a horse, the more you forget the original wish. You forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse. This moment of lucidity does not last long. But it serves as the punishment for your sins, a Promethean entrails-pecking moment, crouching half-horse half-man, with the knowledge that you cannot appreciate the destination without knowing the starting point; you cannot revel in the simplicity unless you remember the alternatives.
  • Meaning varies with spatial scale.
  • Unlike the other animals, who experienced each day like the one before, Man cared, sought, yearned, erred, coveted, and ached
  • In the mornings, when we’re done with our night-time haunts in other people’s skulls, we fall into restless slumbers of our own. And who do you think populates our dreams? Those who have finished their time here and pass from this world. We forever live in the dreams of the next generation.

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

  • And that is the curse of this room: since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.
  • everything that creates itself upon the backs of smaller scales will by those same scales be consumed.

It commands the knowledge of a thousand scholars, the empathy of a thousand lovers, the mystery of a thousand strangers.

  • He says, “It is not the brave who can handle the big face, it is the brave who can handle its absence.”
  • In this way, you can rage against the dying of the light by choosing an afterlife that is fast, furious, and spicy—the crystallization of your fantasies.

People come to discover that the end of death is the death of motivation. Too much life, it turns out, is the opiate of the masses. There is a noticeable decline in accomplishment. People take more naps. There’s no great rush.

  • But eventually it comes to be appreciated that not just the finitude of life but also the surprise timing of death is critical to motivation. So people begin to set ranges for their death dates. In this new framework, their friends throw surprise parties for them—like birthday parties—except they jump out from behind the couch and kill them. Since you never know when your friends are going to schedule your party, it reinstills the carpe diem attitude of former years. Unfortunately, people begin to abuse the surprise-party system to extinguish their enemies under the protection of necrolegislation. In the end, great masses of rioters break into your medical complex, kick the plugs out of the computers, and once again have a great celebration to mark the end of the last unnatural life, and you end up back in the Technicians’ waiting room.
  • But eventually it comes to be appreciated that not just the finitude of life but also the surprise timing of death is critical to motivation. So people begin to set ranges for their death dates.
  • But, instead, we all watch for one thing: evidence of our residual influence in the world, the ripples left in our wake. You follow the successes of an organization you started or led. You watch appreciative people read the books you donated to your local religious group. You watch an irrepressible girl with pink shoes climbing the maple tree you planted. These are your fingerprints left on the world; you may be gone, but your mark remains. And you can watch it all.
  • And it is clear now where this society is going. Most people have died off, and we are some of the few remaining. By the time we die and our death switches are triggered, there will be nothing left but a sophisticated network of transactions with no one to read them: a society of emails zipping back and forth under silent satellites orbiting a soundless planet.
  • The death switches simulate the society so completely that the entire social network is reconstructable. The planet’s memories survive in zeros and ones.

You discover that the you of eight years old has less in common than expected with the you of thirty-two and the you of sixty-four. The eighteen-year-old you finds more in common with other eighteen-year-olds than with your seventy-three-year-old you. The seventy-three-year-old you doesn’t mind a bit, seeking out meaningful conversations with others of the same generation. Beyond the name, the yous have little else in common.

  • They come to understand, with awe, the complexity of the compound identity that existed on the Earth. They conclude with a shudder that the Earthly you is utterly lost, unpreserved in the afterlife. You were all these ages, they concede, and you were none.
  • It realized it could accomplish this by drawing only those entities that were being observed by someone. Under this conservation program, the great meadows and mountains were only drawn when there was someone there to look.
  • This is how the world will close, not with a bang but a yawn: sleepy and contented, our own falling eyelids serving as the curtain for the play’s end.
  • To ensure we spread widely on the surface, they made us restless, longing, lusty, and fecund.
  • And yet, despite the initial success, the Cartographers are profoundly frustrated with the results. Despite their planetary coverage and long life spans, the mobile cameras collect very little that is useful for cartography. Instead, the devices turn their ingeniously created compact lenses directly into the gazes of other compact lenses—an ironic way to trivialize the technology.
  • Despite their robust outdoor design, they have spent their energies building shelters into which they cluster with one another. Despite good spreading on large scales, they clump at small scales.
  • Day after day, with sinking hearts, the Cartographers scroll through endless reels of useless data. The head engineer is fired. He has created an engineering marvel that only takes pictures of itself.

In the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been. So the afterworld is much like the present world, but it now includes all the yous that could have been.

 

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