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Things We Didn't See Coming by [Amsterdam, Steven]
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4.1 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Length: 210 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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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who is forced to take care of his slow-moving grandparents for the summer because his grandfather's license has been revoked.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.

Product Details

  • File Size: 414 KB
  • Print Length: 210 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 1 edition (January 28, 2010)
  • Publication Date: February 2, 2010
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00362XLGO
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #902,815 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Famine, fire, flood, disease and pestilence, this book has them all. What it doesn’t have is any real substance. It’s like the author just sat down and thought about all the possible scenarios for the breakdown of society and then wrote some tenuously connected short stories and threw them all together and called it a book. There’s none of the context and description which make this genre interesting for me. The writing is uninspiring and it’s all very vague and hollow and unrealistic. For example I couldn’t buy the fact that the government would employ grief counselors to help people resettle in new locations in the midst of societal breakdown.

I’m baffled by claims that this book is set in Australia as there’s nothing that anchors it in this or any country in particular. I was looking for some good Australian post-apocalyptic fiction and I was very disappointed. The narrator has the sensibility of a teenage boy and this doesn’t change as he gets older (admittedly I only made it to 65%) and humanity in general are portrayed as mindless, materialistic idiots. This one was not for me.
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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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Fun and super fresh. 100% ORIGINAL. Right on the relevant spotlight and highly current in our global climate. Well written and fast paced with crazy skips and jumps, almost like different short stories looped together forming chapters of a dystopian life story. The story of an opportunistic survivor in a viable "end of the world and i feel fine kinda vibe".
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Perhaps they should invent a new genre for novels like this? We could call it `Alternate Realities' or maybe `Future Shock'. Either name would do as either would be more accurate than calling this novel a hybrid of `Science Fiction' and `Action/Drama'. I have no choice so I will have to label it the latter. But if we did invent a new genre then it would be in good company with things like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, O-Zone by Paul Theroux and Blade Runner (the film), to give some examples.
I think most plot summaries of this text have been somewhat misleading. A series of short stories? I disagree. These are distinct chapters, separated by time and distance, as we follow the narrator's short and difficult life in a vastly changed future, likely post WW III. The connectors between the chapters are there to see, joining most people and events. What we don't know is left up to our imagination although in this new world there are few choices and it's pretty plain to see what happened.
The cause of this `global war' (I assume there was one) appears to be a failure of technology and extreme climate change, an unlucky coincidence that apparently occurred within a few short years of each other. Events then flow on from there.
A very interesting read and I absolutely enjoyed the best-guessing and (sometimes) puzzle-like nature of the narrative.
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