This week’s question comes from reader Kevin Podgers:
If when we die there is an afterlife, but that afterlife must be spent entirely within a fictional universe (film, television, book, video game world, etc.), where would you choose to spend eternity?
Laura M. Browning
I’m going to revert to childhood for this one, before I knew about sexism and racism and evangelism and the tyranny of dogmatism. That’s a tall order, but I was so obsessed with Narnia for most of my childhood that I still can’t think of anything better than walking through a magic wardrobe and into a land with talking animals. I trust I was not alone in sneaking into the backs of closets and running my hands over the walls, or dreaming of riding a lion into battle. But I have to be clear that my Narnia is the one the four Pevensie children visit initially, not the one they go to when they die—except for Susan, who is shut out of heaven, because she likes lipstick, and fuck that—but golden age Narnia, with summer and Cair Paravel and Reepicheep and Mr. Tumnus. And if you read The Chronicles Of Narnia obsessively for many childhood years, before the grip of allegory took hold, there’s really nothing better than having a castle, some light magic, and a bunch of talking animal friends.
No doubt about it, I would choose to spend my afterlife in the music video for Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.” If there is a heaven, it’s most certainly a labyrinth of paint-splattered screen panels filled with turtleneck-wearing dancers. There really doesn’t appear to be too much more to this “universe,” but I can’t think of a better way to spend eternity than prancing through colorful hallways alongside a young Whitney Houston as we dramatically open doors and watch Aretha Franklin on the big screen. And even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, I’m still not tired of “How Will I Know”—it might just be the perfect pop song. If the rules of the Whitney Houston “How Will I Know” maze dictate that “How Will I Know” is the only song that will be played, ad infinitum, then so be it.
After reading this prompt, I mentally cycled through a few fantastical fictional settings—the Harry Potter universe, Super Mario Bros.’ Mushroom Kingdom, Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow—before I realized that the only reasonable answer is Sesame Street. After leaving one life to start another, wouldn’t you want to spend eternity surrounded by friendly faces, in a place where the air is clean? (Also: There’s a monster who loves cookies.) Forever is a long time, but if Sesame Street has kept things fresh and varied for 45 years, surely it can keep that up as the years climb toward infinity. (There’s a topic for discussion right there: “Today’s episode of Sesame Street is brought to you by the mathematical concept of infinity.”) And it’s not like I’d be seeing the same friendly faces day in and day out: The Star Wars droids could swing by, or maybe Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder will set up shop in the courtyard between 123 Sesame Street and Hooper’s Store. Sesame Street carries a lower chance for conflict than other fictional universes, but an afterlife of gentle teaching and Muppet-filled madness isn’t without its downsides. Though, in the grand scheme of things, never getting exactly what you ordered at a restaurant seems pretty insignificant.
Like Erik, I cycled through a few fictional settings, but I stopped a little earlier; namely, the moment I landed on Stars Hollow. The Gilmore Girls’ hometown has everything I want for the afterlife: a lovable cast of local eccentrics, perfect seasonal weather (from sun-dappled summer days to gorgeous snowy winters), and best of all, a deep sense of community. It’s a place where everyone cares about one another, and even someone like town busybody Taylor Doose—whom I would likely murder in a real-life incarnation—is a beloved old curmudgeon. Getting to spend eternity there does indeed sound like heaven. Plus, I have a feeling that the perpetually changing food selection at Al’s Pancake World is going to come in handy as the millennia roll by.
I’d definitely go with Judgment City from Albert Brooks’ 1991 film Defending Your Life. Technically it isn’t the afterlife; it’s a way station for souls in transit as they await judgment on whether they can move into the celestial city. In other words, it’s purgatory, but Judgment City is so luxurious and well-appointed, it’s hard to imagine what could surpass it. Judgment City is basically a fantastic neighborhood where Brooks and Meryl Streep hang out in comedy clubs, go bowling, and eat a lot. The food is the best part: Judgment City is full of restaurants serving the best cuisine you’ve ever tasted—all you can eat—delivered seconds after you order it. The food also causes no weight gain, no matter how much you scarf down. The only drawback is the lack of shopping outlets; white robes are the preferred attire, so there’s no attacking the pasta buffet then trying on skinny jeans just because. But if this is purgatory, I’ll gladly go and encourage the arbiters of my fate to take as much time as they need.
I was a dinosaur kid. And while I can no longer provide the scientific name of every species on record, or tell you which geologic period they all hail from, I consider myself something of a dinosaur adult, too. So if I get a say in the matter, I’m naturally spending eternity in Dinotopia. Introduced in the glossy pages of an illustrated children’s book, James Gurney’s fantasy nation is kind of the anti-Jurassic Park—a lost-world island colonized by shipwrecked humans, who have learned to peacefully coexist, and even tame, the indigenous dinosaur species. Here, triceratops roam the streets of a Paris-style bohemia, while humans hitch rides with pterodactyls through cities in the clouds and others build spectacular Rivendell-like waterfall communities. The ecosystem varies wildly (and impossibly), ranging from mountains to deserts, meaning I would never get bored of the weather or run out of vacation spots. Furthermore, Gurney’s books imply a slowly changing society, meaning that I could basically experience the evolution of human culture and cities—except, you know, better, because dinosaurs. And even if Dinotopia eventually becomes an Orwellian dystopia, it will still have tyrannosaurs. For a dinosaur kid/adult/person, it doesn’t get better than that.
Looking at so many of your choices, I can’t believe how incredibly busy they are. Space battles, dinosaurs, towns that are perpetually on the verge of being destroyed, Whitney Houston bouncing around… Don’t you guys want some eternal rest? Maybe it’s just because I’m lazy, but I want my afterlife to be as free from responsibility and rampaging monsters as possible, which is why I’d choose to spend a never-ending last day of school in the slacker idyll of Dazed And Confused. I also might be cheating this one a bit: Before I moved from Austin to Chicago, I basically did live in Dazed And Confused; my house was right down the block from the Top Notch, and just a few over from the former site of the Emporium, and my social circle included Wiley Wiggins and various other, smaller players from the film. But I can affirm that, other than Top Notch still making kinda shitty burgers, the Austin I lived in for 15 years was much different than that 1970s version. And I’d love to go back and spend eternity just sort of bumming around in its quieter, simpler incarnation, driving and talking and drinking with my friends, and not really worrying about anything over the course of an endless, early summer night. I’d even accept the trade-off of having to wear shitty ’70s clothes.
At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader that’s constantly repeating herself, my answer is obviously Wellsville, home of the characters in The Adventures Of Pete And Pete. I could easily spend an eternity of summers watching The Prosthetics play baseball while sipping on an Orange Lazarus, lazily listening to the sounds of WART radio. Living seems easy in Wellsville, with everyone seemingly working as a half-ass teacher, mailman, bus driver, or meter reader, and while I wouldn’t be forced to work—it’s the afterlife, after all, so let’s hope—I think I could probably get along sweeping front yards for land mines or answering the ringing phone help-line.
I want to spend eternity in Lyra’s Oxford, before children started disappearing. This is the parallel-world Oxford of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, a version of Oxford that’s just dated enough to be charming and quaint. After living my first life in my mundane modern world, It would be great to spend eternity kicking back, surrounded by old-but-not-too-old stuff, traveling by zeppelin, and reading under the soft naphtha light preferred by the staff at Jordan College, where I’d spend the ample time of my afterlife learning how to read the Alethiometer. And it goes without saying that by entering this world I’d get my own dæmon, which I imagine to be an African wild dog or an otter or maybe a stoat.
It would have to be South Park for me. The Simpsons’ Springfield would be fun for a while, if I had the consciousness to say, “Look, there’s Homer!” But if I were just thrown into that world, having to work a normal job at Red Blazer Realty with Cookie Kwan, it would be pretty dull. South Park, however, is a constant bombardment of robots, monsters, adult incompetency, and the looming threat of a gay Satan planning global takeover. The situation is much different if you come back as a child or an adult. As a South Park adult, you are conditioned to over-reaction and constantly in a position to destroy the town. As a child, you generally keep your cool, and apart from Cartman, just really want the best for the town and its residents. Plus, you can do all the things the Simpsons already did, like time travel and zombie attacks. Only in South Park, the insanity is much greater, sort of a gonzo wonderland, keeping you on your toes throughout eternity.
Traditional conceptions of heaven always left me bored; I can’t see harps and clouds keeping me occupied for long. If I’m picking a paradise, then, I want to spend eternity somewhere weird, funny, and endlessly inventive. So I’m going to pick The Land Of Ooo from Adventure Time as my post-death destination. Ooo isn’t always a fun place, filled as it is with terrifying monsters and haunted by the specter of the life-loathing Lich. But it’s also never boring—an entire world built to give an adolescent boy an endless stream of adventures. I could handle an eternity of that.
Maybe I keep coming back to the dream world in Inception because the film itself treats Cobb’s dream like an afterlife—he keeps revisiting memories of his past life and (probably) can never return. But there are worse ways to spend eternity than building sprawling, physics-defying cities and insane snowbound fortresses with your mind. And Inception’s dreams have one significant improvement over the real thing—you can bring friends along for the ride.
Like Laura, I’m going to pick a world I have a few reservations about, namely its lack of modern medicine, flushing toilets, and the Internet. But assuming I’m some sort of ethereal being above coughing, pooping, and tweeting, I’d love to spend my afterlife in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (or perhaps more accurately, Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth). The world of The Lord Of The Rings contains a wealth of different cultures, and since I’d basically be immortal I could spend several decades exploring each of them. I’d first enjoy the pastoral comforts of the Shire and then bounce over to Gondor for something a bit more cosmopolitan. It’d be fun to get wasted with the Dwarves of the House Of Durin, go hiking around the Misty Mountain, and study the differences between the elven cultures of Rivendell, Lothlórien, and the Woodland Realm. And after years of traveling, I’d probably embrace my inner horse girl and buy a nice piece of property around Rohan.
The more I think about it, the less certain I become about my choice, so I’m going to go with the first thought that crossed my mind: Star Trek. More specifically, I guess I’d have to go with the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, because in addition to the near-limitless possibilities when one has access to a holodeck—a technology first glimpsed in an animated episode of the original series—who wouldn’t want to live in a future where Earth is in good, peaceful shape and humanity has developed the technology to explore beyond our own planet and boldly go where… well, you know. It’s a universe where, as a certain Vulcan reportedly once said, there are always possibilities, and I’d love the chance to explore as many of them as possible.
There are a few science-fiction universes I’m torn between—especially if picking Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe means I get to hang out with robots and find out what happens after Foundation And Earth—but my instinct here is to pick the universe that feels like the biggest, wildest party, and one whose protagonist kind of already is in the midst of his afterlife. So then, in a squeaker over Futurama, I’m going with Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, as spending eternity wandering an endless, hedonistic cosmos is much more appealing when I know I can do it wearing a bathrobe and carrying a trusty towel, not to mention a book that reminds me “Don’t Panic” in big, friendly letters. Plus, once I do get to the end of the universe, I’m at least assured of one last nice—if almost certainly hideously overpriced—meal. It’s almost enough to make me forget that, of my three candidates, I picked the one with by far the least personable robots…
On one hand, I worry that I give this answer to too many of these questions. On the other, I don’t care—I can’t think of a better place for me to spend eternity than on the Satellite Of Love from Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t know if, in this scenario, I’m the new Joel or Mike, or if I’m simply allowed to join the gang in the theater as a second quipper/punching bag, but I can just feel myself settling into that seat (after dealing with Dr. Forrester and/or his mom’s daily evil-yet-ineffectual scheme) and cracking wise alongside Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo. There’ll never be an end to terrible movies (thank Torgo—and possibly Nicolas Cage), and I can practically smell the theater as I type this—I imagine it smelling like old, worn vinyl seats and hot glue. At times in my life, I’ve let MST3K become a refuge, a silly, funny place where I can goof on movies while still loving them more than anything in the world. All of eternity there, alongside some like-minded knuckle-knobs? An endless spool of bad movies and brightly-colored nonsense? Sounds like heaven to me.
My favorite fictional universes tend to be filled with strife and mayhem: Star Wars, The Simpsons, Futurama, or the emotional wreckage of various shows about adolescence (I know Freaks And Geeks and My So-Called Life basically take place in “our” universe, but now that I’m older, they both feel pretty removed). But none of those would make great final resting places. I think that, despite the occasional peril, the most peaceful fictional universe I can think of would be the Toy Story universe, which is not totally unlike our own, but—from the toys’ vantage point—has a feeling of eternity, as only really extreme physical damage can kill the toys. Also, it seems like it would be fun and, judging from my reaction to every Toy Story movie, short, and TV special so far, endlessly entertaining. Then again, maybe the unnecessary-seeming Toy Story 4 will so disappoint me that I’ll renounce it and go back to spending eternity with nothingness.
Since Laura stole Narnia—clearly the only rational choice—I’ll go with my backup, the way station in Hirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 film After Life. Maybe it’s lazy to go for an afterlife specifically drawn in the story as an afterlife, as opposed to wanting to spend eternity in Space Jam or something, but every time I re-watch Koreeda’s film, I’m struck all over again by how peaceful it is. The movie focuses on a small, seemingly underfunded office where Japanese bureaucrats meet the recently deceased, help them identify their most meaningful memory, and recreate it as a no-budget film short. People who can’t decide on their most meaningful memory get to join the staff and help the transients coming through. So… eternity spent sharing crucial moments with an endless variety of people, then making art about it? Sounds like heaven to me. I’ve also fantasized about the simple meditative ritual of just raking the leaves off that back patio every day, or stripping and repainting the peeling walls. Best of all, whenever I was ready to move on to something else, I’d have that option. Eternity is scary, but here’s an eternity that gives way to the next thing whenever you want.
When I saw this question, I immediately veered toward science fiction and fantasy because, well, sci-fi/fantasy worlds are just cooler. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that sci-fi worlds also tend to be so much bleaker. As much as I’d love to get drunk at poker night with Starbuck or watch bad movies with Buffy and the Scooby gang, I would never want to live in their harsh realities, especially not for eternity. So I’m going to go with my second, more selfish instinct and live out my days in the mansion from Taylor Swift’s Blank Space video. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, it allows for indoor biking, I’d have a wardrobe of impossibly expensive and impractical clothing, and I’d have an endless cycle of impossibly beautiful and game people. When Taylor sings, “love’s a game, wanna play?” I know she’s making fun of her public person or whatever, but the fact remains that at the end of the day and all my days, I also really want to play.