Colin Adams's Zombies & Calculus is one of the coolest, funniest, most creative science books I've read in a very long time.
What's interesting about that statement is that we're not talking a non-fiction book here. We're talking a novel. Yes, a novel. Zombies & Calculus is pure fiction. Fortunately. Now I'm a big fan of the Walking Dead tv show and the comics too (though I'm a bit behind on the trade paperback collections) so I"m quite glad it's fiction. Basically, the premise of this novel is, "What if Rick Grimes had been a university math prof instead of a police officer."
The opening scene is a college math lecture hall where a couple of zombies wander in and start chowing down on the students. Chaos ensues but our hero Professor Williams, rallies the students and escapes. The rest of the novel is Williams using his math abilities to figure out what is happening to them all -- growth rates, zombie wandering trajectories, how hard you have to smack a zombie to kill it, predator-prey oscillation curves -- and hopefully increase their odds of survival because of that knowledge.
The story itself is pretty amusing, with quite a few of the bizarre and grotesque touches you would expect of any zombie novel. The body count is pretty high. The author isn't a brilliant novelist but easily has enough facility with both prose and narrative storytelling to make the book very entertaining. The characterization is a bit basic and one-dimensional but serviceable. The novel part is only about 150 pages and the relative brevity of the story definitely contributes to the success. Adams also manages to put in a few humourous jabs at academic life and campus politics, from the checked-out senior prof to the incompetent administrator, to give the story some satirical sting. There's even a touch of romance, if you can believe it. Not to mention, extended calculus lectures delivered in deadpan style while holed-up and hiding during the zombie apocalypse is in-and-of-itself flat out hilarious. (Some of the conversations with fellow survivors can be a bit laboured, especially in the appendices.)
As for the hard-core math part, there is quite a bit of very real calculus both embedded in the novel itself and in some rather more detailed appendices. If you're not comfortable with at least some level of equations and graphs, then this probably isn't a book for you. However, Adams does do a decent job of keeping the story flowing without too much digression into long info-dumps. One of the most interesting math parts was about the growth rates of the zombie population and how potential equilibrium of zombies and humans might be reached. Colin Adams definitely needs to be a math consultant on The Walking Dead, especially as the show gets further into the time scale of their apocalypse.
Overall, I can't recommend this book enough; it was one of my favourite science books of 2014. The more math you know, the more you will enjoy this book. The main audience is probably university math students and professors, so if you know one of those, this would make a great gift. As for library collections, this would be a great addition to any undergraduate math collection and could even be used as a teaching tool in first year calculus. Large public library systems would probably also find an audience for this book.
Adams, Colin. Zombies & Calculus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 240pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691161907
(Review copy provided by publisher.)