A stylized diagram of the orbital movements of celestial bodies

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway – can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 


14 thoughts on “The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity”

  1. I was srsly just about to email you about this (it’s still sitting there as a draft) when I caught myself typing the words “wait, have you reviewed it yet?” then decided I should just check for myself.


    And it’s glorious.

    And Tony Burgess is just so delightfully fucked up that I can’t help but love his work. Like, I was serious – I don’t know that I want to know him, but I will cheerfully (and somewhat ashamedly) revel in just how very fucked up he is. And feel slightly inferior for enjoying his work as much as I do.

      1. I srsly want to see that email, and also, wine five! I’m hacking though Pontypool at the moment too. Dude’s writing is fucked up in a major way, and it’s impressive in a way that makes a lot of horror writers look like they’re just not trying.

        1. I think…and I’m trying to figure out how to word this properly…okay, dude definitely writes horror, but it’s got this lovely, lyrical, literary bent to it. It’s terrifying, but his prose is so gorgeous that you don’t even necessarily realize immediately how fucked up it actually is.

          My copy of Pontypool is highlighted to hell and back cos there were so many phrases I just swooned over…even though they were depicting some pretty sick shit.

          1. Yeah, totally. But it’s also literary in a non-literary way? I don’t even know how to come at what I’m thinking. It’s crazy stylish, and has a helluva voice, but it’s not, like, dicking around with Greek terms about how narrative functions and whatnot. It’s all subterranean. He can certainly turn a phrase though, no question.

  2. As I sit here with my coffee this morning, it occurs to me that Tony Burgess is the horror writer equivalent of this guy.

    “Oh, you think that’s some creepy shit? Let me tell you about what’s floating around in Dixon’s intestines.”

      1. Heh. I also read bits and pieces (punintentional) to my husband who thought there was something wrong with me because I was laughing so hard.

  3. As the editor and co-publisher of this book, I can’t tell you how happy this review makes me. And the comment section is almost better. So glad you guys enjoyed it this much! Y’all’re seriously sick puppies. 🙂

    1. Hey, thanks! And also thanks for helping dish the gore to us sick puppies. I’ve been waist deep in horror reading recently – don’t know why; not historically my thing – and it was delightful to find one that blew my expectations so hard.

      While I have you on the phone, would you mind answering a question about the book? I googled around a bit when I hit the H.A.M.S. and egg chapter, trying to sort out wtf, but the googles were not helpful? I’m thinking that had nothing to do with ham radios, Dr. Suess, or the debate between Bill Nye and that creationist. You don’t have to answer, of course. I’m just curious. (And I can send you an email if you don’t want to talk out on the Internets.)

  4. Hello and happy holidays! Wonderful article. Burgess’ work is always a mindf#ck, in the best possible way.

    I’m trying to decode the “H.A.M.S. and eggs” chapter. It seems that Brett’s email at chizinepub is long gone. I don’t suppose you got the decoding sheet and could forward it to me?

    Thanks for the help!

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