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The Afterlife? Not Quite What We Were Expecting

If an afterlife exists, one thing is clear: Any place that can hold the whole of humanity for eternity can't possibly be perfect. It could even be something of a hell, though without the demons and wailing. Or, more likely, we can pretty much expect to be as confounded and unresolved in the hereafter as when we were bumping our way through existence.

That's the charming irony that colors David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives. Though categorized as fiction, Eagleman's book is really a collection of thought experiments in which he concisely — as well as informatively and, sometimes, lyrically — proposes what we could expect after our time here is done.

With every whimsical and slyly comic scenario he offers us — where all the gods are ignored, where we're tiny parts of a gargantuan deity, where you choose whatever fate you like — Eagleman holds up a small mirror to the human condition. What he's addressing are the questions of the here and now: How do we use our short time drawing breath? And how do we know if we lived as best we could?

Eagleman, who is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, considers the double-edged nature of life, made up as it is by uncertain choices and equivocal outcomes. Getting to meet the Creator and having him (or her) reveal the grand scheme of things after the fact is cold comfort.

As Sum so wittily and so bracingly suggests, whether the afterlife is contained in the cosmos or, as Eagleman proposes, in a computer server preserving brains is beside the point. Each tale discretely implores us to embrace the beauty and the pain that will come our way. Whatever follows our time on Earth — if anything does follow — won't be so much an afterlife as an afterthought.

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.