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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Zombies and Calculus

Colin Adams

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To purchase Zombies and Calculus

Title: Zombies and Calculus
Author: Colin Adams
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 222 pages
Availability: Zombies and Calculus - US
Zombies and Calculus - UK
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Our Assessment:

B : good effort at integrating calculus and entertainment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 4/8/2014 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "In the best classic hard sci-fi style, Adams mixes action with valuable math concepts (.....) The book is best for readers already somewhat familiar with calculus." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Zombies and calculus may seem an odd combination -- or a desperate one, jumping on the zombie-craze bandwagon rather late in the day. It may seem odder still is that this university press (Princeton) publication is a work of fiction -- a horror novel, no less. But Zombies and Calculus turns out to be decent zombie fiction (admittedly a bar that is not set very high), and if the maths aren't quite seamlessly woven into the narrative -- it's a bit hard to believe characters would become so engrossed in these various calculus-tangents, given the circumstances -- they are on point, making for a novel that does offer a rather original perspective -- something that is always welcome. Bonus points too for the timing, as there is currently much media (and public) hysteria concerning infectious diseases and their spread (think: Ebola), which is well-covered in the book.
       Calculus is generally considered pretty heady stuff; Adams is well aware of that and so he even structures the novel in a way to try to maximize what readers get out of it, depending on their familiarity with the maths (and/or willingness to tackle more), presenting his story in its basic version, but continuing some of the calculus-discussions in an Appendix of 'Continuing the Conversation', where the examples and explanations are further elaborated on. This is a good way of tailoring the work to the comfort-level of the reader, and it's well done -- the additional conversations offer more (mathematical) insight, but can safely be skipped over without really losing anything of the story.
       (A second Appendix offers 'A Brief Review of Calculus', in which the narrator's daughter explains the basic concepts of calculus to her younger brother, providing a good, quick, accessible overview of it.)
       Admirably, too, Adams understands that in writing a novel, story matters. Yes, it's an unlikely one -- an infectious disease hits the college campus, just a few hours after the first reports of incidents across the state, and anyone who gets bitten by the (ravenous) infected is, in turn, infected as well, turning them into what amounts to zombies: humans with only the most basic brain functions. The bulk of the novel takes place between 'Hour 6' when narrator Craig Williams, who teaches maths at a western Massachusetts college, first encounters an infected student, and 'Hour 24' of the crisis; an Introduction and Epilogue, written three months after the events of that fateful day bookend the story. The zombie-invasion is quick and pretty overwhelming. Though they move slowly, the zombies are determined and pretty hard to escape. Williams and a small group of others from the university do their best to fend them off and try to survive. Various difficulties arise, and plans must constantly be revised, taking into account the changing situation -- with Williams also having to think about (and then try to retrieve) his two kids. (Nevertheless, even in this short period there are some lulls: "I looked at my watch and realized we had been in the port-a-potty for six hours".)
       Williams explains in his Introduction: "This book is my attempt to write down how calculus has helped me stay alive this long" and while it's probably that gun that helps him stay alive more than calculus, there's no question that calculus is at least relevant to what happens. While unlikely that kids will be convinced that the real-life applications of calculus are something that can come in handy later in life, even with these examples -- most of the insights, from why the zombies won't catch up with a human bicycling in a circle to determining how quickly the zombie population is (and will be) increasing are either pretty obvious even without the maths or so abstract that they don't really change the minute-to-minute urgency of what needs to be done -- the novel nevertheless uses many different aspects of this premise to show how calculus can offer a deeper understanding of what is happening. Useful stuff when considering more garden-variety infectious diseases, too .....
       The lecturing is pretty well integrated into the flow of the story -- from the examples themselves to how the characters discuss these, leading to the calculus-exposition. It helps -- a lot -- that Adams and his narrator show a sense of humor about all this too -- right down to having one character ask, after Williams explains Newton's Law of Cooling in 'layman's terms': "Can you repeat that in math ?" (Williams of course obliges).
       There's a decent set of characters, albeit pretty stock and predictable (i.e. most of their fates are too clearly pre-ordained). Some of the crises seem a bit unlikely -- such as Williams' son really being such a brat he decides to visit a neighbor when dad ordered the kids to hunker down -- and at least one of the consequences of zombie-infection, which buys the remaining humans some time, short and long term, seems mighty convenient. More problematic is the necessarily casual treatment of all this mass carnage -- "I guess we'll deal with the psychological trauma later", Williams wryly says at one point, but there's never really any sign of anyone taking much of this to heart. Survival instincts may numb the characters, at least in their immediate reactions, but it's still hard to believe there wouldn't be more trauma here.
       It's difficult for a novel like this to seem 'realistic', but Adams does offer a pretty plausible scenario, especially how the situation plays itself out in the medium (three month) term, given the nature of the infectious disease. It would be a somewhat thin story without the mathematical digressions, but could pass as a decent zombie-apocalypse; the maths angle adds a whole new dimension and makes for an interesting way of looking at many of the issues and subjects that come up -- applicable, too, in other areas, as well as regarding other infectious diseases (which, fortunately, generally do not spread as quickly and in the manner this one does).
       Familiarity with calculus does help in appreciating what Adams does -- it seems like a great post-calculus-class reminder of how all these concepts and equations can have real-life applications, with examples that probably differ from the ones students encountered in Calculus 101. (Those with a limited maths background might find there are just too many equations here -- most relatively basic, but still ... -- so it's not for the most casual readers.)
       A fun idea, quite well realized.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 October 2014

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Zombies and Calculus: Reviews: Colin Adams: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colin Adams teaches at Williams College.

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© 2014 the complete review

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