Glass Soup / By Jonathan Carroll

Tor Books, 317 pp, $33.95, hardcover.

Simon Haden has been to the land of death. And it's not what you might think: ex-girlfriends are waiting for him, plus his mom with a pot of lima-bean soup, and there's a midget named Broximan to help him deal with the hereafter. Vincent Ettrich has been too. His time there is brief, though; his girlfriend Isabelle figures out how to bring him back to life. Isabelle's afterlife is the most confusing of all, not least because she's determined to spare her unborn son, whether she makes it back herself or not.

Jonathan Carroll's fairy-tale SF novel, arguing there's a little scrap of heaven in each of us, tackles mortality and meaning, with a side order of tasty desserts, secretive farts, and a polar bear who claims to be God. There's not an immense depth to either the writing or its underpinnings, but it's an unexpectedly engaging consideration of terrain normally reserved for theologians and Joss Whedon. And it's cheerful: "Some answers in life are so weird yet satisfying that on hearing them, all that the mind can do is sit back and burp." In particular, the notion that each person's afterlife is constructed from a mere sliver of a life's memories allows Carroll to explore the selective nature of perception.

The philosophy creaks under the burden of the plot. (Will Isabelle save her fetus and, thereby, all reality?) And vice versa. It's fine to say, "God blew apart, scattering his bits and pieces to every corner of every universe.”¦When you die the first purpose of the afterlife is to learn how to add your unique mosaic, the one you made of your life, to the greater one that is God." But how does that fractal understanding of humanity (and the godhead) motivate our various heroes in their struggles against their enemy, the force known as Chaos?

Carroll is on surer ground with social satire: "[Most] self-help gurus floating around out there in gullible land were all creations of Chaos.”¦It was a minor but interesting way to fuck people up that worked surprisingly well. All you had to do was make them aware of their shortcomings, which wasn't hard in this age of guilt and doubt. Next, convince them that they were nevertheless close to 'the Answer,' the key to happiness, the end of the rainbow, Nirvana”¦whatever." Like death itself, it's a fascinating place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.