What happens when you die? After making a short journey through an unusual desert or ocean, with the sound of a heartbeat pounding in your ears, you may end up in The City.
Imitating any decent-sized city on Earth, The City is fully functional. Residents live in apartment buildings. There are restaurants, shops, and parks. There’s even a newspaper, started by a man who was a journalist in his time on Earth.
No one really understands why The City exists or how they get there. The predominant theory is that if you’re still remembered by anyone living on Earth, you remain in the city. Once there is no one left on Earth who remembers you, you disappear, making room for the more recently-deceased. In other words, the afterlife has a mysterious afterlife of its own.
Suddenly, The City’s population begins shrinking at a drastic rate — apparently caused by a pandemic on Earth. Those who remain search for connections between them, trying to figure out why they’re still in The City. Meanwhile, on Earth, Antarctic researcher Laura Byrd is completely isolated, unaware of the fact that she may be the last living human.
The Brief History of the Dead was written by Kevin Brockmeier and published in 2006.
I rented this as an eBook through OverDrive, intrigued by the title and cover. A few pages in, I was hooked. The premise offers a unique take on the “Where do we go?” question, and Brockmeier does a fantastic job with The City’s world-building. It’s an eerie place to consider, strikingly similar to Earth but full of deceased people. Life in The City is like life on Earth, if you dropped everything, left your home behind, and moved somewhere unfamiliar with no plans or connections.
The book alternates between following the goings-on surrounding various characters in The City, and following Laura’s journey in Antarctica. Both of these sides of the story are interesting. Laura’s story in particular is full of tension as she attempts to make contact with anyone else who may still be living, while navigating harsh and remote terrain. The environment is described in such a way that the reader can easily build up a clear picture of it in the mind; I couldn’t help picturing Laura journeying through a fierce, snowy landscape similar to Dr. Mann’s ice-covered planet in the film Interstellar.
On a deeper level, while these stories themselves are interesting to read, even better is Brockmeier’s use of these two plots to criticize the world as it exists now, and the direction in which it is headed. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into detail here, but issues such as globalization, corporate greed, global warming, and unsustainable population growth are all explored by this novel.
This eerie and haunting book is one that has stuck with me long after reading. Could it be a movie? The answer is a loud and clear “YES!” I’d love to see this story play out on screen.