At the Conway Hall (conwayhall.org.uk) in central London, on March 25, Will Self was in conversation with David Eagleman, the neuroscientist and author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It was a case of an eager Eagleman versus a stoical Self.
Sum’s 40 mutually exclusive stories are, said Eagleman, a critique of certainty, a “meta-message” shining a flashlight around the “possibility space”. Self gently ribbed Eagleman on his neologism of “possibilianism”, which he said didn’t exactly trip off the tongue and that, besides, it reminded him of the word bilious. He told him he preferred his own coinage – “radical agnosticism”.
Self admitted at the beginning of the talk that “It’s a drag that we’re more or less in agreement” in terms of a debate, and clearly Self was more interested in any epiphany that Eagleman might have had, or any emotional backstory to the book. In that regard, Sum turns out to have more of an intellectual inspiration.
Self talked about the shock of nursing his dying mother when he was still in his 20s and of her death, and that it was this epiphany, along with the birth of his first child, that propelled his writing, starting with the short story The North London Book of the Dead from The Quantity Theory of Insanity: “I saw myself becoming a neutered bachelor, who would be wearing a cardigan and still living at home at the age of forty, but it wasn’t to be.”
Self said he saw Sum as a book very much about this life rather than the afterlife. Intriguingly, Self also suggested that the Dignitas-inspired story Leberknödel, from Liver, could be viewed as an afterlife story too.
To watch the whole talk, visit the Intelligence Squared website here.
There is also a review on the New Scientist website here.