‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ by Steven Amsterdam

ThingsWeDidntSeeComing

Fiction – paperback; Sleepers Publishing; 174 pages; 2009.

Serendipity can work in strange and unusual ways. Having just read H.M. Brown’s dystopian Red Queen, which is set in Australia, I picked up Steven Amsterdam’s award-winning Things We Didn’t See Coming to find it, too, is dystopian fiction.

Amsterdam is a Melbourne-based writer, although the story does not appear to be set in Australia. While the location is never specified, it “feels” North American. This isn’t particularly surprising given that Amsterdam, according to his website, was “born and raised by lifelong New Yorkers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a rent-controlled apartment”.

What is surprising is that this collection of short stories, set in an apocalyptic world, works so brilliantly. While each of the nine stories can be read as stand alone pieces of fiction, taken as a whole they build into a rather wonderful narrative that spans some 30 years and sees the main character, a petty thief, survive the wrath of the millennium bug (remember that?), fire, flood and desperate food shortages, among other disasters.

And despite the dark, sometimes depressing, worlds presented here, the books feels wonderfully alive and fresh and new. This isn’t so much about people dying (although clearly lots of people do die when there’s been an apocalypse), but about the canny, sometimes immoral, methods the survivors adopt to forge on in a world wracked by environmental changes, economic collapse and societal breakdown. It has the potential to be a cold, brutal and violent book, but instead it’s a heady mix of tenderness, sexiness, hopefulness and wonder.

Amsterdam is a talented story-teller, with a sharp eye for detail and a canny ear for dialogue. But it’s his tremendous imagination that makes this book work. Quick thumbnail portraits take us into new and forbidding territory, but he never over-explains, never wastes words on a complicated back story, just thrusts us right into the action from the word go. Here’s an example, taken from the second story in the collection, Dry Land, which immediately conveys a world in which it never stops raining:

I was never trained to travel in these long downpours and I’m tired of the damp. But I’ve got a lot of autonomy. I’m supposed to cover the low areas, look for the shaky light of candles burning in dark houses and evacuate whoever’s still thinking the sky’s about to clear. Land Management sends me in to protect them from starvation and flooding. Also, my job is to make sure no one gets hurt when the animals on the land nearby finally get so desperate that they stampede through. There’s some water-logged cattle one county away that are trapped by a forest and probably close to busting out. They’ll either die or find the strength to cross the highway and come through here. I’m clearing people so the animals can push through the suburbs and muddy farms to find higher ground.

While there’s no doubt that Amsterdam has a unique voice, there are shades of Chuck Palahniuk here, with a little dash of Stephen King and even some David Vann thrown in for good measure. Oh, and just a smidgen of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Things We Didn’t See Coming won the 2009 Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction. It’s currently only available in Australia, but will be published by Pantheon in the USA next month and in the UK by Harvill Secker in August. French and Dutch editions will follow in 2011. Do keep your eye out for it.

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

  1. I received an Advanced Reader’s copy and enjoyed reading it.
    I like how the story is set up. It skips boring parts of the narrator’s life. So, even though each story starts in a different year, I feel that I didn’t miss anything.

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  2. This definitely sounds intriguing, as I’m a fan of dys/utopian fiction. That said, I can’t stand Chuck Palahniuk’s novels (or at least, I couldn’t stand the three I’ve read). I liked the passage you quoted, though.

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  3. 100% agree with Kirsty, this has a great quirky yet classy cover.
    I also like the idea of this as a collection, honestly Kim its blogs like this that make not buying books a complete nightmare hahaha! I also like it when dystopian fictions never says quite where it is.

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  4. Yes, I liked that aspect too. Even though each chapter moves the story ahead by an unspecified number of years (sometimes the clue was in the age of the narrator, if he disclosed his age) and you miss huge chunks of his life, it all makes perfect sense.

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  5. I have to be truthful and say I didnt expect to like this one, purely on the basis that it was a collection of short stories as I dont always get on with short stories. But I neednt have worried.

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  6. Interesting to hear you dont like Chuck P – I love his stuff.
    I think the comparisons were largely in response to the surreal nature of each story (Chuck P is nothing if not surreal) and the slightly dodgy character of the narrator – hes a thief but not a completely immoral one – and the way in which events overtake him (this is common with Chuck Ps characters, too).
    And yes, the cover design is pretty wicked, isnt it?

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  7. Love the cover too! I’m not a short story fan in general, but do like story cycles and anything dystopian, so I shall look out for this one. I must read some Chuck P – where would you recommend that I start?

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  8. I refrained from reading your review until I had finished the book (although in theory, a review should probably be read before reading the book…). I’m glad to see you’ve enjoyed it too. I agree that what makes this story works so well is that it’s crisp and doesn’t get weighed down with unnecessary details but gets right to the point.
    I love the cover too. It’s so sleek, simple and unique.

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  9. Although Amsterdam’s use of English is quite sophisticated, the conceptualisation of this book is, regrettably, drearily naive. To me it reads like an undergraduate’s first manuscript that should be forgiven but never published.
    It is often said that to become a good writer you must first become a good reader. The world is full of “The Trials of Everyman” beginning, perhaps, with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and also of good speculative fiction. Had Amsterdam read more of either of these he might have spared us the tendentious twaddle of his own book and in doing so saved a tree or two.

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  10. So glad you loved this, took my breath away. Was really puzzled to read such a bad review of it in Metro, I don’t think we can have been reading the same book.

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  11. I missed the review in the Metro – did they give it short shrift, then? I thought this book was pretty damn amazing… 7 months down the line I still think of some of the things that happened in it, mainly the chapter Dry Lands, which I quote from above.

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  12. Just picked up the Harvill Secker edition of this, and liked it very much. They’ve gone with a similar cover concept, but with a photograph in the background. Very nice, but it isn’t half a pain when you’re writing a review, and trying to make sure you spell the author’s name right! 🙂

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