Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

twdsccvrSleepers Publishing, 9781740667012, 2009 (Aus, US)

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of vignettes, from different stages of the unnamed protagonist’s life in a dystopian alterno-present/future. It is a post-apocalyptic story, but told in a hard-boiled, yet highly resonant literary style. The sentences are sharp, the character is hard and the environment is one of rapid change and ruin – but throughout there is also deep resistance. The book acts to massage you at your core, and every secondary character met along the way (no matter how fleeting) leaves a poignant stain on character and reader. They are examples from all of humanity’s shredded social standings – how different people would deal with natural disasters, segregation (between urban and land environments), political situations (and radical politics), survival against disease, and more. There is so much imagination at work in describing employment the character undertakes throughout the novel, and in his family situation, his love life, and his drive for physical and emotional survival. Though it is a series of stories, they run linear – from a small boy taken to his grandparents house on the eve of Y2K (which isn’t named, but that’s what the situation seems to be) and his father’s rant about the world we live in, to a conclusion which shows that through all the rapid fluctuations in the world, some people don’t change, and there will always be pockets of good, of nature, of things that don’t make sense at the time. There will always be meaning to a fleeting existence.

The character is adamantly nonreligious, but there really is a spiritual essence in this book – in his personal ethical struggles, and the overriding hope within the bleakness. The character fights with his instinctual nature to steal, and to live for survival and himself alone. This is a great part of his journey that isn’t played out overtly, but is present in his actions throughout the novel.

There are many moments of struggle and sadness, such as the chapter ‘The Theft That Got Me Here’, an incredibly poignant escape with his grandparents, on the day his grandmother’s pills kick in and she becomes herself again, fleetingly.

There are also moments of pure imaginative fun – sexual encounters; a difficult and moving love story; a cocky kid the protagonist has to guard; the jobs; the conflict; and the pharmacopia.

One interesting thing to note – the setting of the book is unknown and never made explicit. Deer are mentioned, and some landscapes that seem North American, so it will also sell in that market, I presume, but my imagination still planted the story in Australia. I know it’s due to my awareness of the author’s origination, but I think one of the points of it is it could be imagined in just about any Western country. A kind of nowhere-land of modern Western civilisation and societal mores, politics, religions, etc.

Another experience of reading this book, is the realisation that so much of it actually seems plausible. It is rooted in a speculative framework, but it is very near-future, or even alternate future. Droughts and floods, for example, don’t seem so implausible – and the political situations that may arise due to technological class divisions, generation gaps and opposing urban/nature mindsets. Not to mention evolving illnesses and an ever-increasing cocktail of drugs. Of course while much of it is imaginable, much of it is highly fantastical, and both prove the quality of Amsterdam’s skill and imagination.

Things We Didn’t See Coming is bleak yet inspiring, a little like retro-future text Blade Runner. It’s a completely refreshing literary work from an Australian writer who I predict huge things for.

See the official website for the book.

10 thoughts on “Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

  1. Yes. Finished the book today. This is SUCH an important book for Australian writing (and Australian publishing). A debut novel that is exciting not because it’s full violence, small-town quirk or show-off sentences, but because it’s just so unassumedly impressive. Big-ups to both Steven and Sleepers.

  2. I’ve just tried to get a copy, and the large chain (Borders – who 18 months ago would have had the title!) didn’t have any or any order for any…Sad…

  3. Chris – spot on. Truly. I knew you’d love it too.

    Troy – get it from Sleepers website so they get the dough. It has wide distribution so a shame that whoever does the buying at that Borders store hasn’t had their attention drawn to it. This is something SPUNC needs to work on I think – for the small presses – direct-to-bookstore type marketing. The net stuff only works to an extent.

  4. Oo, I must get this book. I’m reading the Sleepers Almanac 07 right now and just loved his story, The Theft That Got Me Here. Obviously, now reading this, I see it’s from his book!

  5. Pingback: Steven Amsterdam - a ‘responsive’ interview - LiteraryMinded

  6. This book was prominently displayed in an indie bookshop in Brisbane on the weekend, and I may have chosen it for its arresting cover even if I had not already read your review. I devoured this in one day, and have never read a book of short stories so compulsively. Thanks for giving it some much-deserved attention.

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  8. Pingback: Recently read: The Fine Colour of Rust by PA O’Reilly & What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam | LiteraryMinded

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