Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tony Burgess' THE n-BODY PROBLEM

It just this second hit me that the title of The n-Body Problem Tony Burgess' disturbingly memorable follow-up to the disturbingly memorable PontyPool Changes Everything is a pun in like three different ways. This weeks after I actually read the thing*. And this insight is hardly the only one to club me over the head in the intervening time.

Like Pontypool, The n-Body Problem could superficially be categorized as zombie fiction, but also like Pontypool (but not really like the rapturously lyrical Zone One that I recently praised to the skies**), this novel has a lot more going on than standard zombie fare.

This time around the zombie-causing disease has a more straightforward vector, but its results are far more disturbing: the victim dies but continues to move, to flail, to twitch. It won't stay buried -- the earth churns up at sites of mass graves until the writhing dead resurface. It will burn but the disease is so virulent that the living can't keep up with the crematory duties. It can be dismembered and diced up, but the bits keep on hopping around like so many undead jumping beans. The twitching dead are a problem, yo,

As our story opens, though, someone has devised a solution. If we can't deal with the twitching dead here on earth, let's launch them into space! A whole industry has sprung up around this, has become pretty much the only way to prosperity in this damned world.

And at last our primitive notions of Heaven as a place in the sky where our beloved dead go to spend eternity is given real form. For a monthly fee you can even track your particular loved one the way we internet users in 2014 can track the International Space Station and thus know exactly when to rush outside and watch and salute its brisk journey across our own personal sky.

But remember what I said about volume. And industry. Yeah.

Some solutions can be as bad as, or worse than, their problems. And here's where the title looks like it's going to really come into play: In physics, the n-body problem is an ancient, classical problem of predicting the individual motions of a group of celestial objects interacting with each other gravitationally. And now we've launched millions of new ones into near-earth orbit to join all of the frozen astronaut piss and debris that we'd already flung up there. Stuff that, occasionally, eventually loses momentum, breaks orbit, and comes crashing back to earth to burn up as it streaks through our atmosphere.

Mmm. Zombie meteorites.

And that's not even the primary environmental problem they cause, you guys.

Meanwhile, this is still a Tony Burgess novel, which means all that is just unpleasant backdrop to a hideously grotesque and deranged and disturbing and I'm just going to run out of adjectives trying to convey the sheer ickiness so I'm just going to stop here, earthbound story of sort-of-survival in rural Ontario amid apocalyptic madness, doomsday cultism (on a suspiciously industrialized scale) and the twitching dead. Heaven is not the only thing that's been literalized here. And soon the hell gets very, very personal for our protagonist (emphasis on the "agon" here, if you know what I mean). N- body scans kind of like "nobody", and he kind of is, and then... ARGH MY BRAIN JUST SHUT DOWN I THINK I NEED THERAPY.

A lot of people are going to put this book down, if not throw it or the e-reader currently containing it at a nearby wall, in sheer disgust pretty early on, but those of you who tough it out are in for, well, an even more unpleasant -- yet nonetheless amazing -- reading experience. Burgess is an artist of great imagination, talent, focus and yes, grotesquerie, a 21st century master of the grand guignol, a Hieronymous Bosch and a Goya of prose, who finds in playing with the zombie genre a proper showcase for what he can do.

He can do a lot.

Now I think I need a lie down.

Many thanks to Popqueenie, whose own reactions to this book are quite entertaining, for the chance to read this one. And headvomit. And keep on reading.

*Life has been happening. A whole lot of it, yo. I left my high-stress-but-also-high-downtime-job and the city of Cheyenne for a lower-key type B life in my home town of Saratoga, WY. It's been chaotic.

**Ha ha! You'll see what I did there in a moment!