Imagine paying a Company good money for the promise of an avant-garde afterlife complete with jet packs, Porches, endless cocktail parties and — why not — virgins run amok, only to find out that real-thing death lands you in a “stale” heaven with “manna and milk,” nimbus clouds, no car, and a God who’s very unhappy that you trusted the Company and not Him. Or imagine human beings as lab rats for “small, dim-witted, obtuse” creatures eager who created them to know what life means, which humans are required to tell them after death: Except that the humans have no idea, and all remain perplexed.
David Eagleman’s speculations are catalogued daguerreotypes of possible afterlives. God is portrayed as both man and woman, as Maker and Creator, even as a quarreling married couple. Depending on the afterlife’s prism, he’s an Oz-like wizard, a little old man, a lord of smart microbes, an Alzheimer’s patient, a password prompt, an overmatched bureaucrat, “a molecule tinkerer” with a melancholy craving for Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which helps Him explains His overall powerlessness.
Death, too, is multiform. There’s death with reincarnation including, an inviting prospect until the wish to become a horse turns the thrall into whinnying. There’s death in phases, with “real” death occurring only when all earthly memory of the deceased vanishes, leaving the still-remembered to go mad in fluorescent light lobby. There’s also the attempt to declare death null and void, which ironically goes nowhere because “the end of death is the end of motivations,” making suicide useless.
The only constant is God’s frustration, and that of the dead. Neither side quite gets how the other one works, or even why. On the edges of the afterlife are lurk lusty quarks, baffled programmers and the potential for an endless “rewind,” a “diseduction” that leads back to the womb and the womb before that.
Neuroscientist Eagleman’s 40 genre-less possibilities, each one supernaturally wide-eyed, are a homage to an old school humanism that saw scientists, medical doctors, engineers and biologists speculate provocatively about their fields, making nonspecialists gape like children before zoo animals.