Things We Didn't See Coming

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9780307378507: Things We Didn't See Coming
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Michael Williams, in Melbourne’s The Age, wrote of this award-winning, dazzling debut collection, “By turns horrific and beautiful . . . Humanity at its most fractured and desolate . . . Often moving, frequently surprising, even blackly funny . . . Things We Didn’t See Coming is terrific.” This is just one of the many rave reviews that appeared on the Australian publication of these nine connected stories set in a not-too-distant dystopian future in a landscape at once utterly fantastic and disturbingly familiar.
 
Richly imagined, dark, and darkly comic, the stories follow the narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold one after another. In the first story, “What We Know Now”—set in the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable—we meet the then-nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. The remaining stories capture the strange—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny—circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival; trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor who has access to all his thoughts, taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that, despite the violence and brutality of his days, the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity—and humor.

Things We Didn’t See Coming is haunting, restrained, and beautifully crafted—a stunning debut.

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Review:

Steven Amsterdam on Things We Didn't See Coming

The first story I wrote for Things We Didn’t See Coming, "The Theft That Got Me Here," was inspired by two news stories--one, the nasty partisan splay in recent elections and, two, a local interest piece, where an elderly couple who were about to lose their driver's licenses tried to drive away before getting caught. I set my story a little bit in the future and wrote from the perspective of a teenage boy, a budding criminal who is forced to take care of his slow-moving grandparents for the summer because his grandfather's license has been revoked. There’s a barricade between the city and the country, so he’s stuck on their dry treeless street. The day the story begins, his grandmother’s medication for Alzheimer’s kicks in and she is suddenly as sharp as she ever was. She wants to go for a drive in the country and she’s not accepting no. They make it out of the city, but nothing goes according to plan. Writing the last line of the story, I thought, there's more to this boy. I wanted to see what else he might do in his future. This time I chose a different scenario, where rich, terminal patients can indulge in adventure tourism. The narrator is their tour guide (and he's not so well himself). In the next one I wrote, he's riding a horse through a three-month downpour, clearing people out of their houses before a flood.

By separating each story by a few years, I was able to engage several of the things that are on my mind--dazzling technological advancements, societal shifts, food shortages, new medical treatments, and good old climate change. This freed me up from being caught in a particular groove (e.g., pandemic), and allowed for a variety of futures, which kept it from being your standard dystopian bummer. Although the landscape is always changing, the consistent element is the narrator growing up. The jumps in the story of his life let me leave gaps for the reader to fill in.

When I got through most of the stories, I found myself thinking of my illustrious forebears. Remember Orwell’s vision of 1984? He was two decades early with his vision of security cameras everywhere, and even he wasn't dark enough to imagine an actor being elected as head of state. I realized that nothing works out, not even worst-case scenarios. I didn’t want anyone reading this book as my prediction. I wanted it to be thought of as variations on the theme, but spread out over the narrator’s life. This is why I wrote "What We Know Now," which comes first in the collection. I set it in the past, on the eve of this millennium, with the boy’s father frantic to get out of town before the grid goes down. Remember Y2K and how we were going to run out of power and food come January 1? Exactly.

So the stories grew from worries about the future, stray items in the news, and The Economist’s technology quarterly, which is unsurpassed for alarming and amazing facts about things to come. A few novels I was reading at the time also had an impact. Saramago’s Blindness, in particular, showed people cobbling meaning together in a time of change. His depiction of a familiar city, transformed, and his language, spare but emotional, gave me a certain freedom with creating new worlds. And other favorites sustained me--Nabokov and his obsessive powers of observation, James M. Cain and his tightly sprung twists, Shirley Jackson and her love of the weird, and Capote with his ear for language. I am grateful to them and just about everyone else. --Steven Amsterdam

(Photo © Corry De Neef)

About the Author:

Steven Amsterdam, is a native New Yorker who moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 2003.  He currently works as a psychiatric nurse.  You can visit him on the web at www.stevenamsterdam.com

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