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Zombies and Calculus
by
Colin Adams
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Our Assessment:
B : good effort at integrating calculus and entertainment
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
 "In the best classic hard scifi 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 zombiecraze 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 calculustangents, 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 wellcovered 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 calculusdiscussions 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 comfortlevel 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 zombieinvasion 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 portapotty 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 reallife 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 minutetominute 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 gardenvariety 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 calculusexposition.
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 preordained).
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 zombieinfection, 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 zombieapocalypse; 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 postcalculusclass reminder of how all these concepts and equations can have reallife 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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About the Author:
Colin Adams teaches at Williams College.
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