Now if you read the title too quickly you might assume that this was a book about near death experiences, when actually it consists of forty little tales imagining different versions of 'the afterlife'. I guess I should start by saying that I don't have a belief of any kind in any kind of afterlife. What we have here is someone using 'the afterlife' as a story writing exercise, to see how many different worlds he could create within the confines of the idea that after death your 'soul' goes on to somewhere else and exists forever. As my ex-husband used to say (see how you really can't get people out of your head no matter how you want to) heaven would have to be absolutely perfect, because an eternity of anything else would definitely be hell. None of the places described in this book come anywhere close. In many of them God seems to think he or she has created something pretty amazing, only to find that the human beings do not experience it as they anticipated. I like the one where God decides weighing up everyone's good and bad deeds is too complicated and opens heaven up to everyone, that just pisses off the 'good' people. In another people get to watch what is going on on earth in a huge video lounge. People spend their time following the ripples left by their own existence, until their membership expires, seen as a punishment, but saving them from having to watch things going wrong and everything they thought important whither away. In 'Death Switch' people try to cheat death and pretend to still be alive by creating a series of automated computer exchanges that take over when they die, and existence ends up simply being replaced by computers. In another God has vanished and people spend their time debating what has become of him. In yet another you are invited to pass judgement on yourself, based on comparison with all the 'you's' that you might have been if you had made better cleverer decisions. And in the end we have the final solution, the universe reaches the end of it's expansion and begins to contract and the whole of existence plays out in reverse, with the dead rising and babies returning to the womb, and nobody really understanding the meaning of it all any better on the way back.
It would be an excellent book for students or book groups to discuss because there are lots of interesting ideas in it about human frailty and the need to make sense of existence, and the search for meaning via external sources. I am in the middle of writing about Philip Pullman's 'Dark Materials' trilogy and he has an interesting 'afterlife' and solution to the problem which gave a lot of food for thought. So here's a poser: what would be your idea of heaven?