Here is a sample blog entry I wrote on David Eagleman’s “Sum,” which should give you a sense of what kind of thing you might write for this assignment. Don’t feel that you need to imitate my style or the kinds of observations I make. This is just an example. But you should take note of how much I engage with the text (both quoting and referring to it), how focused I stay on the text (avoiding generalizations about society, human nature, etc), how I include a central argument or thesis, and how I include a bibliography of works cited. For general instructions on the blog-entry assignment, click here.
A few more pointers (added Feb. 18): notice how the entry below does little summarizing of the story. You can assume that your reader knows the text; I will in general consider plot summary to be superfluous. Also, though I don’t avoid speculating about questions I don’t answer (see the middle of the second paragraph), I don’t overdo the speculation and the rhetorical questions. The problem with these devices is that they can sometimes be a way to avoid actually making a claim. Finally, though I do happen to use an external source (Dawkins), this is not a requirement.
Refuting Eternity in David Eagleman’s “Sum”
© 2015 by Daniel Aureliano Newman
In “Sum,” a subtle but crucial aspect of Eagleman’s imagined afterlife is its impermanence. In my own mind, apparently, the concepts of “afterlife” and “eternity” were so intertwined that it was only on re-reading “Sum” for the nth time that I realize it makes no claim for foreverness. What is most remarkable about “Sum,” then, is the fact that the afterlife it describes is exactly as long “your life” (3); the order but not the duration of “all your experiences” has been changed (3). Note that once “you” have experienced “all your pain at once…, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife” (3)—not for all time. The implication here is that, like all the tales in Sum, Eagleman’s portrait of the afterlife is really an oblique comment on this life and how we seek to give it meaning.
Not one event of “your” now-complete life is given special prominence. At most, each event has been classified and collated with others of its kind. What “Sum” seems bent on attacking is the idea of a single, life-defining moment. In its vision of the afterlife, the “seven months having sex”—I wonder how Eagleman derives this (rather large?) number, incidentally—are simply one grouping of experience like any other, whether it is “six days clipping your nails,” “fifty-one days deciding what to wear,” or “sixty-seven days of heartbreak” (3).
As a real speculation about the nature of the afterlife, “Sum” is of course absurd. This is not a failure on Eagleman’s part: I think the absurdity is rather the point. It’s no big stretch, I think, to consider Sum profoundly sceptical of (and perhaps hostile to) the idea of a life after death. Like so much Science Fiction, “Sum” and the other tales can helpfully be considered thought experiments—that is, fictions that help us think about the real world by deviating from it. As Richard Dawkins writes, “Thought experiments are not supposed to be realistic. They are supposed to clarify our thinking about reality” (4).
If you think about it, grouping each experience with others of its kind is impossible—not just practically but theoretically. How can any moment in a life be classified as a single experience? Don’t the “sixty-seven days of heartbreak” overlap with the “five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet” (3)? Couldn’t at least some of the time you spend “staring into the refrigerator” be due to the heartbreak? Every moment is multiple, a palimpsest of events at the levels of our conscious minds, our unconscious, our involuntary physiology, our voluntary actions, and so forth. This is a point that Eagleman actually raises in “Quantum,” another tale in Sum. So I find it helpful to think of “Sum” as a distorting mirror whose very distortions are designed to make us rethink “your Earthly life” and what it might mean. This is, indeed, how the “Sum” ends, in a lyrical tribute to the variety of experience in even the most mundane life, and not in any hope of a better life to come.
Dawkins, Richard. The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Eagleman, David. “Sum.” ENGL 246: Science Fiction. Ed. Daniel Newman. Montreal: Concordia University Bookstore, 2014. 3. Print.