Alic Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was built around in interesting and (as far as I know) original concept of the afterlife: rather than there being a single one-size-fits-all Heaven where everybody goes, everyone gets their own individual Heaven – a place where they are truly happy. Although each heaven is specific to each individual, they are not alone; all the Heavens are 3D Venn diagrams and those with similar ideas of happiness find their Heavens intersecting to greater or lesser degrees.
In this cosmology, there is of course no Hell. Evil people (like the serial killer who raped, murdered and dismembered Sebold’s heroine) find themselves, like everyone else, in their personal idea of Heaven; which is presumably (although Sebold doesn’t explore this) populated with willing victims whose idea of heaven is to be tortured and killed. Though-provoking ideas, with a good story attached too.
Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is built around another concept of the afterlife: that everybody goes to an afterlife and stays there only while there is somebody alive who remembers them; then they well and truly vanish. Brockmeier’s afterlife isn’t described as heaven; he makes it sound like any largish, quiet US town, with gardens and squares and sunshine and lots of pleasantness. People have jobs and go shopping and walking and make love and talk. There are orphanages for the children (who never grow up – nobody ages here). People don’t change from their pre-death selves – blind people are still blind, crazy people are still crazy, selfish people are still selfish. So presumably the evil people are here as well and still evil, but we see no sign of them and nothing really bad seems to happen.
However, I can forgive Brockmeier that particular inconsistency in his cosmology – the guy can write well enough for it not to matter. The story is set in the near future, when global catastrophe is occurring and international tensions and wars are increasing. The Afterlife is starting to get crowded. Then, suddenly, it starts emptying – somebody has released a devastating virus that is rapidly killing off every human. Eventually, the only people left in the Afterlife are those held in the memory of the last human alive – how long can it last?
Towards the end, the story got pretty meandering. Characters kept getting introduced only to do very little to advance the plot. But it was still worth reading right to the end.
An initial irritation for me was the constant and blatant use of the Coco-cola brand name in the narrative – the heroine works for the company, every soft drink is a Coke, every crushed soft drink can is a Coke can, and so on. But it rapidly becomes clear that Brockmeier is only doing this to give the company, and global corporations generally, a damm good kicking. He really, really doesn’t like them and they are the villains of the book. If this novel ever gets filmed, this is going to be one product-placement opportunity that won’t be taken up.