Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2021

Things We Didn’t See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

I’ve had this book for ages, and I decided to read it now as part of a slow effort to clear the TBR at Library Thing.  (I (haphazardly) post reviews there, but my TBR is at Goodreads, so the 213 books at LT have been there for a very long time).  I’ve read and liked two further novels by Steven Amsterdam, What the Family Needed and The Easy Way Out, but Things We Didn’t See Coming is his first novel, and it won The Age Book of the Year in 2009 and was longlisted for the Guardian’s Best First Book Award in 2010.

What I was not expecting, because the cover blurb tells very little about the book, was to discover just how prescient it is, in this era of the pandemic.  (I was going to write ‘Year of the Pandemic’, but alas, it’s been more than a year).  Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of nine interlinked short stories, set in an alternative future that loomed when Y2K was on the horizon.  The Offspring (a computer nerd) told me not to worry, but he was at the time doing consultancy for major banks and the prison system, to protect their computer systems from doing anything untoward when the clock rolled over from 1999 to 2000.  Although some people dismissed the Millennium Bug as hype, it caused considerable concern and there was a flurry of survivalists who thought that the disruption was going to be much more serious than it turned out to be.

Steven Amsterdam has imagined a world of things we didn’t see coming.  The first story, called ‘What We Know Now’ is set on New Year’s Eve 1999 when many of the digital clocks in the world’s computers were expected to roll back to 1900 instead of 2000 and no one knew what might happen.  The unnamed narrator is a teenager with attitude.  He doesn’t believe all the Y2K hype:

I’d like to be in a plane over everything.  We’d be flying west, going through all the New Year’s Eves, looking down just as they happen.  I’d have to stay awake for twenty-four hours of night time, but I’d be looking out the little window and watching ripples of fireworks below, each wave going off under us as we fly over it.  I start to talk about this idea, but decide to save it for Grandma.  Dad doesn’t think planes are safe today either.  (p.9-10)

Indeed he doesn’t.  The family are packing up the car to go to the countryside, and the narrator humours his father over his fears.  This is the first hint that there are ethical and social dilemmas to be tested in what turns out to be an horrific future.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

‘The Theft That got Me Here’ takes place some years later.  He’s in a city taking care of his grandparents, now that his grandmother has dementia.  The loss of grandpa’s driving licence prompts a jaunt in the countryside, and miraculously, Grandma perks up, hustles them through the checkpoints that barricade urban life from rural and off they go to their old place at Keaton.  But the day trip turns out differently to expectations, and the narrator ends up alone, with a car, setting off out west by himself.

From there what’s left of his ‘nine lives’ traverse different kinds of disaster.  The title of ‘Dry Land’ is ironic: climate change has brought endless rain.  Literally.  Vast swathes of land are uninhabitable, and food is scarce.  The portrayal of starvation is vivid, and the narrator’s job is to ride around issuing relocation orders as the waters rise.  It’s a horrible job, but its ‘perk’ is that he can loot abandoned mansions, limited only by what he can carry on the horse.  In an encounter with two women not really fitted for survival, he tries to persuade one to abandon the other, and he realises how practised he has become at talking people out of everything they care about.

Catwalk’ finds him with Margo, also an accomplished thief.  This is the episode that mimics today’s pandemic.  He and Margo went bush when the quarantine orders were issued, but the narrator encounters an infected man, and he can’t leave their camp because Margo might come back and touch him after he’s died. This story is awful to read: the terrible lonely death of the man, coupled with the abject fear of social contact.  Which we ourselves have also learned to fear because of the pandemic.

In ‘Uses for Vinegar’ he’s been drafted into Rescue work.  Usually he waits for the fires to be out or the floods to abate, but he had nothing else to do after the windstorms.  He’s been reunited with Margo, but she’s taken up with Shane in his absence.  He works in Verification giving out cash grants and Margo and Shane want one that they’re not entitled to: another moral dilemma, and so is the question of whether to ditch Shane or not.  The narrator is very cynical by now, especially about the way the survivors congratulate themselves on their luck.  They don’t know yet that the newborn worry in their faces is permanent.  Rebuilding will be a constant in their lives and the cash grants are meaningless in the long run.

The thought is nice.  You’ll have a clean slate, a world of opportunity, you’ll never look back.  But nothing heals, if you lose everything once, running becomes part of you, and you’re also looking back. (p.91)

In ‘The Forest for the Trees’ Margo and the narrator are in a future life that’s well-organised, compared to the previous chaos.  He’s now living in his ‘second union’ with Margo, and, working for a politician called Juliet, he’s writing a speech about male infertility for her.  Juliet is like a female version of Trump, totally outrageous yet people vote for her even though she does morally dubious things.  However, this job doesn’t last, and in ‘Predisposed’ he’s a kind of youth worker, hired to look after the sole remaining child in the community.  By now he regrets the things he has done in order to survive, but he’s tested once again by Jeph who is fourteen, and a real pain.  He blackmails the narrator into doing what he wants…

In ‘The Profit Motive’ his attempts at self-reform are tested in a bizarre job interview… they want to know if he is honest so the interviewer demonstrates how easy it is to steal valuables that have been impounded.  They want to know if he will succumb, and they also want to know if he will dob her in…

‘Best Medicine’ is the last of the nine lives that have traversed the breakdown of everything that’s safe and familiar.

I don’t often read dystopias, but this is one of the best.

Author: Steven Amsterdam
Title: Things We Didn’t See Coming
Publisher: Sleepers Publishing, 2009
ISBN: 9781740667012
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings (and signed by the author!)

Sleepers Publishing (who I once featured in Profile an Aussie Publisher) ceased publishing new titles in 2016, and they don’t appear to have a web presence any more.  But Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn are still doing bookish things and you can still order the book from bookstores like Readings (where you can also read a review by Martin Shaw).

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for reminding me about this book which I read soon after publication. The story Dry Land is the one that sticks with me. Whenever I see floods on TV I immediately recall this story. Somehow flooding seems worse to me than drought seeing as it provides the twin threat of dying by drowning.

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    • Yes, it’s horrific. I still feel cold just thinking about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was interested to know whether Amsterdam intended this book as a novel or as short stories, so I googled (or duckduckgoed). You were 7th, but 9th or 10th was ‘Atar notes’ so I guess you’re going to get a lot of hits. I fyou read more dystopian I’m sure you’d find more you liked.

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    • Oh dear, I didn’t know it was a study text. I would have written this more evasively had I known, so as not to help the lazy ones who haven’t read the book!

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  3. […] I would have written my review of Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming much more evasively if I’d knows it was on those […]

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  4. I have a copy, and now I just need to allocate time to read it …

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