Death just the beginning for Law Professor

August 09, 2017


By Adela Talbot

Randal Graham was writing an academic text when he realized it contained a work of fiction waiting for escape.

“I use a lot of examples and hypotheticals in my academic writing – and I always use a narrative structure when using hypotheticals. I thought about using a hypothetical situation to demonstrate the importance of scarcity,” said Graham, a Law professor whose professional focus is primarily on statutory interpretation and legal ethics.

Much of his work in legal ethics focuses on microeconomics – how people make decisions in their own self-interest. It is a legal field in which scarcity plays a significant role, Graham explained. At the time of his authorial epiphany, Graham was working on a book examining how judges, lawyers and others in the legal system make decisions. What factors into a judge’s decision, if something personal, such as one’s reputation, is at stake? How do such constraints impact decision-making, when one choice forfeits another?

“I was writing about how all sorts of different actors in the legal system act within constraints of scarcity when making self-interested decisions and I thought about using a hypothetical to demonstrate the importance of scarcity,” he said.

“So, I thought of positing a climate of non-scarcity. How would decision-making be affected in a climate where you could have whatever you want, whenever you want, and there was no opportunity cost? Where taking one choice didn’t foreclose you taking another choice later? I started writing this fantasy world in which there was no scarcity and then I realized – the ultimate source of scarcity, from a mortal’s perspective, is mortality.”

Out of that thought process, Graham’s first work of fiction, Beforelife, was born. The book is scheduled for a September release by ECW Press.

“Scarcity is ultimately generated by mortality – the fact that we’re going to die. If I spend three years going to law school, that’s three years I could have spent going to medical school. My little hypothetical then morphed to become a world without mortality and it started to look an awful lot like traditional depictions of the afterlife,” he explained.

Beforelife is the satirical tale of Ian Brown, a man who dies on the book’s first page and finds himself in an afterlife where no one else believes in a ‘beforelife.’ The other residents of the afterlife have mysteriously forgotten their pre-mortem lives and think anyone who remembers a mortal life is suffering from a mental disorder called the “beforelife delusion.”

The protagonist finds himself on a quest to prove the ‘beforelife’ is real, which puts him into the crosshairs of some of history’s greatest heroes and villains, including Socrates and Napoleon, all of whom seem unhealthily obsessed with erasing Ian’s memories and preventing him from reminding anyone of their pre-mortem lives.

“I’ve always thought about how we think, when we think about things like the afterlife and eternity, and how the human mind can embrace concepts like eternity and a lack of scarcity,” Graham noted.

“Think, for example, of the difference between a person in their teens and a person in their 40s. Now, imagine the difference between a person in their 80s and a person who is 10,000 years old, having been in the afterlife for that long. How relevant would your first 80 years be? How relevant would your mortal life be, in shaping the person you are 10,000 years from now, in the afterlife? Would you even remember it?”

He wanted to explore the possible chaos that would ensue from individuals making decisions in a climate of endless possibility and non-scarcity, where one’s wishes could bump into and contradict another’s. In the afterlife, you might wish to spend eternity with someone who does not wish to spend eternity with you. Does this conflict make non-scarcity impossible?

Before settling down and writing the book, Graham filled notebooks with details of how this afterlife of non-scarcity functioned and what it looked like.

“How does biology work? Can humans be injured? Are animals there? Is there space travel? Are there other planets? What about social institutions? How does marriage work in an afterlife in which you don’t have the convenient escape clause of death? In my afterlife, marriage is a seven-year renewable contract,” Graham said with a chuckle.

He has optioned the movie rights to Beforelife and has sold it to a screenplay author. An audiobook is in the works and a group of his students has produced a book trailer to help market Graham’s novel. While the book is a standalone story, he is currently working on a sequel.