It’s often remarked, particularly by atheists, that most postulated hells are richly imagined, with precise levels of pain laid out for the most remote niches of sin, while heaven tends to be rather, well, fluffy: white clouds, harps, unending songs of praise, and … otherwise indescribable. That’s presumably because humans have no difficulty at all in imagining absolutely everything going bad, and a much, much harder time with the opposite. Something much the same illuminates Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives (Penguin), neuroscientist David Eagleman’s brilliant, witty, endlessly inventive collection of micro-tales of various post-life existences. Most involve God (or other creators) and the notion of reward (just or otherwise); it’s only that the more interesting things get, the more they resemble hell, or at least our current existence.
Take the title story, for example. In this afterlife the deceased relive everything, but this time events are reshuffled so that like moments are grouped together: the do-over does give you seven straight months of having sex, but that has to be balanced against 18 days of staring into the fridge, not to mention five months of sitting on a toilet flipping through magazines. Or “Perpetuity,” where the dead awaken in a typical North American suburb. Some of the dead, that is; the survivors soon learn that all the truly good people they had once known—Samaritans, saints, philanthropists—didn’t make it, but remain “rotting in coffins, the foodstuff of worms.” Naturally, a current of unease floats under the good life, popping up while shopping or barbequing: whatever God has in mind for the sinners, it can’t be good. (One character theorizes He’s stockpiling soldiers for an eventual war with another God in the next universe over.) But no one guesses the truth. We were made not just in God’s physical image, but his social one too. He spends most of his time pursuing happiness and attempting to avoid boredom. He’s grown bitter and envious of our brief lives, and those of his creation whom He dislikes are condemned to the same immortality that weighs upon him. That old song, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, nobody wants to die”? Eagleman will have you believing the opposite.