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Things We Didn't See Coming Hardcover – February 2, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (February 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378500
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378507
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,369,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews 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who is forced to take care of his slow-moving grandparents for the summer because his grandfather's license has been revoked.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)

From Publishers Weekly

Given that its nine linked stories are set in a postapocalyptic near future, the pleasure of Amsterdam's debut collection is surprising. Over the course of the book, just about every possible disaster assails the unidentified country in which the stories are set. Floods, drought, mob rule, and a virus that has one deranged character coughing up blood—each play a role in the disintegration of the world as we know it, and Amsterdam's narrator survives them all, first as a thief, later as a bureaucrat (which turns out to be not much different from a thief), and finally as a 40-year-old, cancer-ridden tour guide. Among the high points are Dry Land, in which the narrator encounters a drunken mother and her daughter clinging to each other in a cataclysmic flood, though each is more likely to survive alone; and Cake Walk, with a narrator who hides in a tree while a man infected with a deadly virus destroys his campsite. Though a couple of the later stories lack polish and punch, Amsterdam's varied catastrophes are vividly executed, while his resilient narrator's travails are harrowing. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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See all 11 customer reviews
Somewhat experimental in structure, this novel is compelling and engaging.
D. Voelker
There was no lead on between chapters and even in the last chapter which should tied this loosely tethered book together I was still wondering who, what and when.
The plagues - floods, viruses, food shortages, explosions - are specific, with great portrayals of their impact on the people left behind.
J. Luiz

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Amy Henry TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This collection of short stories was released in February and is definitely going to get some big press. The author, Steven Amsterdam, is a native New Yorker who moved to Australia in 2003. He is youngish and it comes through in the feel of these stories: one unlike any others I can remember. I've read many collections before, but often it seems they are told by an older `voice', usually an introspective older man or woman. In the case of my beloved Tim Winton short stories, the voice changes throughout to different people and different age ranges. These however have a snarky young voice, a male narrator, and it spins things around quite a bit as the topics are different as well. The pace is fast and the humor is biting. Amsterdam makes visual pictures of a future Australia that are brutal and painful and heartbreaking.

In "The Theft That Got Me Here", a young man who lives with his grandparents, one of whom is suffering from Alzheimer's, is greeted with a surprise:

...Grandma opens the door and she's fine. She's standing on her own, not holding the walls, nothing. She's been off the map for six years and now she's looking at me like a professor. Not speedy and scared, like she was on the last treatment, but simply there, her old self. And this isn't me on drugs. It's her on drugs.

In "Dry Land", Australia goes through a rain cycle that doesn't end. For years. All that dry, dusty outback becomes a series of lakes, and the rain never stops. People are forced to evacuate, and while they try to hold off, leaving becomes inevitable. The narrator observes that "Despite all the feelings we think we've got for our loved ones and our attachments, when push comes to shove most people figure out how to travel light.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Book Lover on February 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. While the book is a collection of short stories that could each stand alone, I felt that it read like a novel as the stories, presented in chronological order, follow the life of one particular character through his experiences in a post-apocalypse world. The short story format allows the author to envision a host of different disaster scenarios plaguing the world, from climate change to a government run amok to a terrifying virus, thus making this book very different from other books that try to describe living and surviving in a post-apocalypse future. All in all, a very interesting read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By J. Luiz on May 10, 2011
Format: Paperback
Except for the great Mad Max movies, films and books about post-apocalyptic, dystopias aren't normally my cup of tea. I'd prefer to read about how characters deal with familiar problems in recognizable situations not too far removed from my own. But I can say I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of linked stories about a world that's come apart after a Y2K meltdown.

Some reviews have noted the fact that the book doesn't have a table of contents indicates the author intends these stories to be more a novel than a collection. They do feature the same unnamed narrator, dealing with different crises at various stages of his life. But the novel or collection debate quickly becomes irrelevant because it's such a a great read.

My joy in the book resulted from how well the relationships are portrayed. Right from the outset you feel sympathy for the young boy who's trying to stand by his worrywart father while his mother, who he prefers to call by her first name instead of "Mom," has had about all she can take of her husband's fears, which surprisingly prove entirely too well-founded. After the first story, in the dystopian world the family falls apart - each going their separate ways.

Unlike a science fiction novel, this book doesn't expend a lot of energy explaining the exact details of this new world, such as the oppressive government that runs it or how the old world order broke down, or even the exact location of where the events take place. I assume it starts off in the United States because the family is listening on the radio to a New Year's celebration from London before the cataclysmic midnight hour has hit for them. There are references to socialistic-sounding governments, and Barricades that go up and down between the cities and rural areas.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By D. F. Robison on March 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Somewhere in the landscape between Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas", lies Steven Amsterdam's "Things We Didn't See Coming". With spare, succinct writing, Amsterdam creates a full, if dyspeptic world, though not nearly as brutal as McCarthy's. The book is made up of chapters that could each be a short story, but nevertheless work as a novel. Plenty there to chew on and then it sticks to your ribs.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By readlikebreathing on June 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover
So I just saw on someone's blog a list of dystopian novels they wanted to read. A recent revelation that I made was that dystopia probably needs its own subsection of the library now, because these things are everywhere. If you walk through the science fiction section of any library you'll see easily 10 or 15 titles that are unknown, but everything this you would expect from the genre.

This book falls into that category. It follows one man through his entire life as the world falls apart around him, starting when he's a child all the way to the end. Throughout that time, the world goes through not one, but serveral changes. From brutal and savage, to somewhat stable, back to savage, into something more spiritual. Nothing is concretely described, (as is the tradition with dystopian novels that I think people don't realize going into it) which I enjoy as it leaves a lot up to the reader to figure out and decide how the world is structured.

I will say what I didn't like about the novel was the way it's structured. It's told as short stories that loosely connect, very Hemingway of the author but with a solid knowledge that they're always talking about one guy. At first I liked this, it allowed for large jumps through time so we could see more of how the world worked without having to slog through 100 pages. However it made it hard to stay engaged. I found myself putting it down, forgetting about it for a couple weeks, only to pick it back up and remember how much I liked it. It took me a while to get through because of it.

All in all, it is brilliant in its simplistic, yet controlled style at describing all the depravity humans are capable of in dire circumstances. Theft, sexual deviance, loss of morals only to regain them again... I found it honest and realistic in a genre that usually veers far from those two things. If you can read it in a couple of sittings I think it would be more effective though.
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