A Brief Eternity (Paul Beaumont, 2013) [amazon]
Oh dear, where to start with this one? I seriously considered titling this post “I think I have a new favourite book!” This book was almost everything I wanted it to be and more; it’s a gripping read and I could barely put it down; it’s thoughtfully and respectfully written and deals with serious issues while also being laugh-out-loud hilarious; basically, this book is more or less what you’d get if someone intentionally wrote a book that ticked all of my boxes (even the boxes I myself wasn’t aware of). It goes without saying that your mileage may vary, since I think I’m pretty much the ideal audience for a book like this and therefore I’m inclined to be biased in its favour and/or to overlook its flaws, but I absolutely loved it and recommend it unequivocally and as enthusiastically as possible.
Let’s get the disclaimers and disclosures out of the way: I have no affiliation with the author or publisher, and stand to benefit in no way from advertising this book. In point of fact I only read it because it showed up in Amazon’s recommendations for me (kudos, Amazon!), looked vaguely interesting enough that I clicked through for more information, and had an introduction written by Dan Barker (whose work I admire and whose opinion I respect). Barker I have met, though only once and that briefly; that said, if I encounter him again I’d love to have a conversation with him about this book. What all of this adds up to, essentially, is that I knew next to nothing about this book going in, but thought odds were decent that I’d like it.
I’m going to attempt to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, because I don’t want to ruin anybody’s potential enjoyment of the book and I do think it may be better to go in with minimal information (with regard to worldbuilding as well as plot; more on this later), but that makes it very difficult to discuss in any detail so I’ll try to keep things vague where possible and mark the serious ones if I can.
I think the easiest way to sum up what this book is is to say that it’s a dystopia set in the afterlife. (Or, put another way, it’s what you get if you cross Left Behind with god Is Not Great.) What if the Rapture sects of fundamentalist Christianity had it right?
I think Beaumont basically thought that would be interesting to explore, and decided to start from there and fill out the worldbuilding that would be necessary to explore the moral dimensions of that worldview. And, for what it’s worth, I think he did a great job with that worldbuilding work, though that was probably made easier by the fact that he was deliberately doing inconsistent worldbuilding and expecting the reader to pick up on the inconsistencies along with the characters (how often do you read a book that wants you to notice inconsistencies in the setting?). Considering Poe’s Law it’s probably not saying much to say this, but I never got the impression Beaumont was creating a strawman instead of working from actual religious beliefs, either.
In a way, then, it’s no surprise I loved this book. After all, it’s basically just Bible/religion spitefic and I tend to enjoy that sort of thing in most fandoms that interest me.
The protagonist, Jerry, is a sort of nonreligious/atheist everyman who more or less accidentally gets taken up in the Rapture. Most of the book follows him as he tries to adapt to life in a very physical Heaven, and his inability to fail to notice the niggling problems everywhere and that not everyone is as happy as they appear (physical suffering is gone, but emotional suffering seems to be alive and well). While in Heaven Jerry is able to meet all sorts of people with different perspectives (guided by a man named Bob, who is essentially the Virgil to Jerry’s Dante and provides the exposition we can’t be shown), though he’s bothered by the fact everyone except him seems to have been very religious and eventually discovers the existence of Hell. There are also quite a few chapters from the perspective of Jerry’s girlfriend Rachael (though not nearly as many as Jerry gets), a secular non-observant Jew, who was left behind on Earth which apparently became combined with Hell. (One of my few disappointments with the book is that, because it focused on the dystopian nature of Heaven and Jerry’s adventures there, we didn’t get to see nearly as much of Hell and the interesting side characters inhabiting it as I would have liked.)
As he learns more and more about the situation in which he’s found himself, and is unable to reconcile himself with the fundamental injustice of heaven and hell (and the fact he can’t be happy in heaven while so many people he loves are suffering), Jerry attempts a legal gambit to free first Rachael and then everyone from Hell.
I found the characters very well-written and relatable, and their reactions to situations entirely understandable (though there were some very uncomfortable moments, such as when we’re faced with learning all of the Jews ended up in hell and see them struggling to deal with it; that said, as someone who is nominally Jewish myself, I didn’t think it was insensitively or offensively handled and it easily could have been. The book also shows the fates of believers in other religions which turned out to be false in this particular fictional universe, such as the Mormons and Muslims, and I thought it had an interesting take on their reactions and didn’t feel contrived.)
[SPOILER WARNING: HEREIN I COMMENT ON THE ENDING]
I found the ending a bit disappointing, in all honesty, though I’m not necessarily sure another ending would have felt authentic. I’m still mulling over whether I think the ending is a positive one; I can’t decide whether it qualifies as a Pyrrhic victory for the antagonists (is there a less clunky term for this?), or if they just won outright and the ending amounts to Jerry and Rachael admitting as much and giving up. I’m going to have to think on that some more (I think the most positive take on it I can come up with right now is that, given the circumstances that led to the events of the book, it’s impossible that Jerry and Rachael could be alone in their resistance; they’re ordinary people in the best possible sense, and therefore there have to be more where they came from to continue the fight).
That said, it’s certainly a realistic ending given the preceding setup, and as such might be preferable to one in which the protagonists’ attempts at resistance had been more successful. It could have been worse, though: it could have been “He loved Big Brother.”. The fact I’ve brought that in as comparison should speak for itself though, I think.
[END SPOILER WARNING]
It’s a pretty short book, and combined with how gripping it can be it ends up being a very quick read. (Though I’ll admit that when I did have to put it down, I often had just as difficult a time getting myself to pick it up again because I was so full of anxiety about what was going to happen to these characters next. That has to be a mark of good writing.)
If this sounds like the sort of thing you’d like, at all, GO READ IT NOW. You can thank me later.
*I will add the caveat that I have no idea what this book would be like for a reader who doesn’t agree ideologically with the author; I’d love to hear from religious people who’ve read it, if any of you happen to be reading my blog for some reason I can’t comprehend. I don’t think there would necessarily be big disagreements as long as such a reader is sympathetic to humanistic ethics irrespective of supernaturalistic beliefs…