The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess (book review).

Tony Burgess is a Canadian surrealist author of literary horror who writes novels and screenplays. His latest novel, ‘The n-Body Problem’, provides an original, odd and extremely disturbing take on the zombie genre. Is it worth reading?


The story is set in Canada around the mid-2030s. Some twenty years earlier, the zombie apocalypse happened. As might be expected, there was a lot of panic, violence and bloodshed initially. However, after a while, it became clear that the undead were not the flesh-eating nightmares of every B-movie. In fact, in this zombie epidemic, when people die and come back to life they don’t walk or run or attack anyone. Instead, they do nothing more threatening than gently shuddering the whole time, as if they were still alive but suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Faced with growing numbers of non-violent but decaying undead bodies, the problem became one of efficient waste disposal. Incineration was seen as the obvious route but due to the fact that the bodies aren’t dead, too many people saw an unfortunate parallel with the Holocaust, so burning was abandoned. After other methods were tried and failed, someone came up with the bright idea of firing the bodies up into orbit. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps?

What nobody expected was that firing one billion bodies into orbit would have a significant impact first on the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth and second on the psychology of those left behind. Humanity became a race of depressed hypochondriacs and suicide rates soared.

This is where our protagonist, Cauldwell, enters the story. An ex-mercenary turned bounty hunter, his current target is a former colleague called Glenn Dixon, a so-called ‘Seller’ who travels round the country offering to help the terminally depressed end their own lives so that they can be fired into orbit. Far from being an angel of mercy, however, Dixon is a supremely warped individual who revels in killing these poor unfortunates by mass electrocution before stealing all their money and abusing their undead bodies in myriad different ways. Cauldwell is on a mission to put an end to Dixon’s evil trade but has his own problems, the biggest of which is a chronic case of the hypochondria that afflicts so many. Trying to cure his many perceived illnesses has turned Cauldwell into a nervous drug addict and blunted his senses. So although he thinks he’s hunting for Dixon, it quickly becomes clear that Dixon is more predator than prey. Can Cauldwell overcome his weaknesses and defeat Dixon or will he become another one of the Seller’s unfortunate victims?

To start with the positives, this is a short book which doesn’t take long to read, there are occasional moments of beauty and reflection in the text and the cover artwork by Erik Mohr is very effective.

On the other hand, there were several things that didn’t work for me. First and foremost amongst these were the characters. Most were one-dimensional, few had any depth or complexity and none, that I noticed, were genuinely engaging. Our protagonist, Cauldwell, is supposed to be a former mercenary, yet his fighting skills are non-existent and he acts like a moron most of the time. After a while, I found it hard to care what happened to him or to anyone else, which is not normally a good sign.

I also found the story premise deeply unconvincing. We are told that one billion of the population have become passive twitching zombies in the two decades since the condition first emerged. That is something like one in seven of the world’s population. Yet, despite this catastrophic collapse in global capability, the world is supposed to have moved from our present position, where America and Russia between them launch just a handful of astronauts into Low Earth Orbit each year, to a position where a private company is able to build and launch sufficient spacecraft to put one billion zombie bodies into orbit in just eighteen months. That is roughly twenty thousand zombies launched every second. Get real!

The problem here is that the story is dressed up in the garb of hard SF even though it’s clearly nothing of the sort. It would, in my view, have been much more sensible for the author to have written this horror story in a magical realist or other fantastic mode, when questions about how so many zombies were sent into orbit could have been more easily brushed under the carpet.

Finally, there are numerous passages scattered throughout the book that it is difficult to describe in any other terms than torture porn. Their only narrative function appears to be to show just how super-evil the bad guy is. After the first such passage, every subsequent one is unnecessary, uninteresting and unimpressive. I don’t care who he kills or how because I have no sympathy for any of the characters, I don’t believe in the story universe and I just want the book to be over.

If you enjoy reading surrealist fiction which mixes together unsympathetic characters, tenuous plots and frequent bouts of hyper-violence, then you may well enjoy ‘The n-Body Problem’. If not, I suggest you give it a miss. I found a few moments of interest and even beauty dotted throughout the text. However, there were nowhere near enough of these to make up for everything else.

Patrick Mahon

23 June 2014

(pub: ChiZine Publications. 188 page small paperback. Price: $15.95 (US), $17.95 (CAN). ISBN 978-1-77148-163-2)

check out website:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.