New York: Witness Impulse, 2014. 340 pp., paper, $6.99.
Everyone who tries to imagine the afterlife faces the same problem. On the one hand, it is not life on earth. On the other hand, our minds can only conceive of things on the basis of earthly perception: even the innumerable heavens and hells of all cosmologies are framed in earthly images.
John Shirley, author of many science-fiction novels (and of the article"The Apocalypse of Consciousness" on page 140 of this issue), grapples with this dilemma in Doyle after Death, a murder mystery set, peculiarly, in the afterlife.
Nicholas Fogg, an unsuccessful private investigator, dies in a seedy Las Vegas hotel room. Upon waking, he finds himself in a netherworld settlement called Garden Rest, in an environment that is both like and unlike the earthly plane. There are apparently many such communities in the other world. People still have bodies, and they still have appetites (especially for tobacco, which for some reason this particular bardo cannot produce), but other things differ significantly. There is no need for food, for example, because nourishment comes from opening oneself up to this world's sun, which not only gives sustenance but provides taste sensations that are at least as good as any on earth.
Fogg finds that one of his neighbors in this unassuming corner of the afterlife is Arthur Conan Doyle, best-known in real life for his Sherlock Holmes stories but also an avid investigator of spirits and mediums. Having been a detective on earth, Fogg joins Doyle in a hunt for a murderer who has inserted himself into Garden Rest. (Shirley does in fact explain how murder is possible in the afterlife.)
I don't want to spoil the details of the plot, but apart from it there are several things worth noting in this book."The afterlife described in the present novel," Shirley says in an author's note at the beginning,"has its own rules and peculiarities. I wish to assert that any conceivable afterlife would have consistent physics and biological principles." He illustrates these both in the course of the novel and in an appendix, where he spells out some of the ideas behind his vision in the form of a dialogue between Doyle and Fogg. (I found this section especially interesting and wished it might have been longer.)
In this nether realm, as in ours, the mind has creative power, but the power of the mind is greater in Garden Rest than on earth. Houses, for example, are not built but "formulated." They sprout up spontaneously through the directed use of the mind, the ground spewing out a kind of lava that soon solidifies into the desired shape."Formulating here is rather like what we used to call apportment," Doyle remarks."The most curious items would materialize in sances would apport right there and then" (emphasis in the original).
Of course we too can formulate houses, but here they require hard work. What emerges from this picture is a realm that is slightly, but only slightly, more yielding to the power of the mind than ours is. Shirley is suggesting that there many realms in the other world, some subtler, some denser; some pleasant, some less so."There is no torturous hell, you know," Doyle explains,"just an exclusion from light, a dark place where misery-inducing souls are left alone with one another. Here in Garden Rest we are in one ' merely one! ' of the outer rings of light."
Souls do not stay in Garden Rest forever. At some point each resident will be given the"Summons" and will disappear. Where they go next is not spelled out, but Shirley implies that the soul moves on to higher and more rarefied realms, in a process that may be endless.
Doyle after Death is both highly original and evocative of many esoteric teachings, including Theosophy. Although it would be pointless to try to fit Shirley's afterlife tidily into the Theosophical schema of kamaloka and devachan, in this vivid and well-told story, he presents a fresh and charming view of what may befall us after death.