A review of Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Tony Burgess’ The n-Body Problem is a pharmacological journey through the zombie apocalypse, and a discourse on the collective social habit of avoiding one’s problems. The n-Body Problem explores a world where people keep moving after death, not threateningly or aggressively, but moving nonetheless evoking the question of whether they are alive, what constitutes death, and the bigger problem of what to do with so many moving bodies. WasteCorp, a waste disposal company proposes the idea of launching the living dead into orbit, suspending them in the atmosphere until they burn off as layers of fire, and they are able to do good enough PR work to convince people that this is an almost romantic way to go. The only problem is that the sky is greyed by the network of dead bodies around the Earth and it is creating health issues for the people alive on the planet – both from lack of exposure to the sunlight and from the depression that comes from seeing a network of the dead around their planet every time they raise their eyes. It is a zombie apocalypse filled with threat, but not from the zombies… at least not directly, but rather from the “solution” to the living dead and the horror that ensues.
In order to cope, the population is advised to avoid looking up and to regularly take SSRIs to deal with the perpetual depression and anxiety evoked by this permanently altered world. However, the SSRIs are not benevolent either, causing a Syndrome from the quantities they need to be used in, fundamentally changing the people who use them.
The characters have their moral compass set to grey from the beginning of The n-Body Problem but a dark, dirty grey that gets more ashy over time as layers of dust from bodies burned in orbit rains down on them… a zombie grey that exists in the perpetual twilight of a world that no longer has hope of change.
Playing with ideas of speech and silence, the notion that some people are best left in a devoiced state because when they speak it may only be a diatribe of horrors, Burgess explores the power of voice for propaganda, and the way the silenced are used for religious, corporate, and political causes. Whether corporate propaganda tells the people about the beauty of their dead loved ones floating in silence in orbit close to the stars, or religious leaders use the dead and the dismembered to bring on religious fervour born of fear and a need for some form of change, silence is made to speak loudly.
Burgess experiments with the idea of a social shift from the military-industrial complex and its profit from death through war to a new system of profit based around the pharmaceutical-waste-disposal-religious complex, intertwined in a system of making capital through the disposal of bodies and inciting people to suicide.
To say this is a bleak book is to downplay the significance of the melancholy it evokes – within this novel, the only thing on the horizon is more dead bodies… literally. It is a stream of consciousness narrative that reads like a hallucinatory voyage between pathologies and syndromes, a work that makes the body and the world around it a perpetual uncertainty, a slippery, threatened and threatening thing.
To find out more about The n-Body Problem, visit ChiZine Publications’ site at http://chizinepub.com/books/n-body-problem