Things We Didn’t See Coming

Things We Didn’t See Coming By Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn’t See Coming
Things We Didn’t See Coming

Book Details

Book NameThings We Didn't See Coming
AuthorSteven Amsterdam
Item Weight 7.4 ounces
Hardcover208 pages
Product Dimensions5.21 x 0.55 x 8 inches
PublisherAnchor (February 8, 2011)
Best Sellers Rank#2,128,135 in Books
#2,316 in Science Fiction Short Stories
#5,310 in Science Fiction Anthologies (Books)

Richly imagined and darkly comic, Things We Didn’t See Coming follows a man over three decades as he tries to survive in an increasingly savage future that is at once utterly fantastic and disturbingly familiar. Here, coming-of-age is complicated not only by family troubles and mercurial love affairs, but treacherous weather, unstable governments, pandemic, and technology run amuck.

Book Preview

For the first time, Dad is letting me help pack the car, but only because it’s getting to be kind of an emergency. He says we’ve each got to pull more than our own weight. Even though we’re only going to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, he’s packing up the kitchen with pasta, cans of soup, and peanut butter—plus the toolbox and first-aid kit. Carrying a carton past the living room, I see Cate there, trying not to pay attention. “Almost done, Cate,” I tell her.

“I’m your mother. Call me by that name,” she says.

I say, “Mother.”

My job is to bring everything out to the car. We’ll load it all up when I’m done. He parked in front of our building and put orange cones down on the road on either side of it two days ago. None of the neighbors said a word and he asked me not to make a big deal. The closeness makes it easy to keep a lookout on our stuff, while I’m running up and down the two flights of steps. No one’s on the street when I step outside so I go up for another load.

The Benders on the third floor went away the day before Christmas, but Dad said he wanted to wait until the day of New Year’s Eve to maximize preparation. He says this is a special new year and we’re taking special measures. He says this year I have to stay up until after midnight.


Nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and winner of the Age Book of the Year, Things We Didn’t See Coming follows its narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that becomes increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold. In the first story, “What We Know Now”—set on the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable—we meet the then nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown.

The remaining stories capture the strange—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny—circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival: trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor, taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that despite the violence and brutality of his days the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity and humor.

Dark and darkly comic, Things We Didn’t See Coming is haunting, restrained, and beautifully crafted—a stunning debut.

Editorial Reviews

From The Pete’s Books

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.

From The Warwick

I don’t have a particularly good relationship with post-apocalyptic fiction, tending to find it either too far-fetched or, if not far-fetched, too depressing to want to immerse myself in for very long. I was spoiled early by having to read Robert Swindells’s relentlessly bleak postnuclear misery-fest Brother in the Land for a school English class, after which I spent much of the next few years lying awake at night worrying that the noise of jumbo jets coming over Gatwick’s flight path might in fact be the noise of a nuclear wind rushing towards our house. Thanks, Miss Cutler.

Of course, it’s useful (necessary, even) to be scared by these ideas once or twice – but once you’ve got to grips with the basic principles, I’m not always sure the lessons learned are worth the emotional trauma involved. This is what these books try and put you through because despite the tone of some of my reviews I’m actually not a very critical reader – I tend to be pretty wide-eyed and immersive when it comes to fiction.

More generally, though, I think the genre suffers disproportionately from the prevailing fallacy that tragedy is somehow ‘truer’ than comedy. (Which some critics genuinely believe, not without reason, but which I don’t.) This is why for example I am in no great hurry to read The Road because although I often love Cormac McCarthy’s writing style, I think his general philosophy depends on wilfully ignoring huge vistas of human experience and interaction – which is creatively interesting, but when it comes right down to it, no less selective a vision than that of someone like Terry Pratchett.

All of this is my way of saying that I liked Things We Didn’t See Coming a lot more than I expected to when a cute sales assistant in a Melbourne branch of Readers flirted me into buying it ‘because the author’s a local’. Actually, Steven Amsterdam is originally from New York, but Melbourne has been his home for years now: the landscape of this book feels vaguely American, but the language includes some telltale non-US elements (like ‘Mum’). It begins on the eve of the millennium and disappears off into an alternative present / near-future where society and the environment have broken down.

The book is constructed as a novel-in-short-stories, a format I like anyway and one which works especially well here. In nine standalone chapters, we see our unnamed narrator at different stages in his life, from a ten-year-old boy to a semi-invalid, prematurely-aged wasteland survivor. There is a lot of enjoyable speculation to be had over what must have happened in the long years between chapters, as secondary characters come and go, and as the world around us changes: we see at various times endless rain, urban looting, rural survivalism, drought, plague, even momentary periods of political stability with a decadent ruling class. The prose is sparse, uncomplicated, and effective, and a lot of the key developments are unexplained and off-stage.

I like that the geopolitical/environmental speculation is not the main point here. What Amsterdam is really interested in is how interpersonal relationships work, how trust breaks down, and whether it can ever be properly built up under extreme circumstances, and how to work out what really matters and strip down your life to just that. There is a nice strain of dark humor running through the book, and although it takes a steady look at the worst aspects of human nature, it doesn’t forget the other aspects.

Only one of the stories felt underdeveloped to me; all of them completely held my attention and left me with lots to think about. Recommended for late-night reading under the Gatwick flight path.

From The Lacks Substance

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 a 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, is depicted as mindless, materialistic idiots. This one was not for me.


“Breathtakingly strange. . . . The kind of book that can inspire us to think differently about the world and entertain us at the same time.” —The Washington Post

Things We Didn’t See Coming feels like a genuine discovery. It is the most compelling portrait of dystopia I’ve read in years. . . . Timely and unexpectedly moving.” —Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast

“A small marvel, overflowing with ideas. Scary, funny, shocking, and touching by turns, it combines the readerly pleasures of constant reorientation with the sober charge of an urgent warning. Things We Didn’t See Coming refracts our life-and-death fears through those moments of human contact where they are most keenly felt.” —The Guardian (London)

“Deeply smart . . .  and full of surprises.”  —Time Out New York

“[The narrator] is a wry observer with a throbbing conscience. . . . A heartbreaker. It’s hard to embrace a Cassandra. But Amsterdam seems to still be betting on the better parts of our humanity, if not our prescience, to see us through.” —The Plain Dealer
“Brilliant. . . . Thoughtful, intelligent, savvy.” —The News & Observer

“Funny, scary, and described with a flair for the telling detail.” —Harper’s

“Impressive. . . . [Those] looking for a more ruminative view of the world’s end—perhaps not with a bang so much as a series of whimpers—may find Amsterdam’s close-focus approach to thinking about the unthinkable to be chillingly effective.” —David Maine, author of The Preservationist

“Steven Amsterdam . . . bolsters his dystopian vision with issues facing our planet, from climate change to refugees; computer bugs to medical malpractice. Each of these issues that fill our daily news consumption and contribute to heightened anxieties is, in Amsterdam’s hands, a mere backdrop to explore how humans need not become devils in the face of approaching annihilation. Which makes Things We Didn’t See Coming a far more hopeful book than its subject indicates.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Such an impressive novel. . . . In Amsterdam’s hands, the apocalypse sounds like it might be fun.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Describes the smaller, most human responses to unimaginable disaster.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Fantastic and gripping and utterly original. . . . Read it once and then read it twice, often.” —The Irish Times

“Amsterdam enters the literary world with a full-blown talent that can’t be stopped.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Impressive and believable. . . .  Amsterdam’s understated predictions are refreshing.” —The Onion’s A.V. Club

“Read it all in one day. You won’t be disappointed.” —The Decatur Daily

“Something very strange happens upon finishing Steven Amsterdam’s (remarkably assured and kind of masterful) stories: what should be a bum trip through a variety of dystopias . . . ends up anything but; one puts down the book feeling something close to hope. . . . I’m inclined to think it’s just gratitude that there are such writers around.” —David Rakoff, author of Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable
“Don’t read this book in bed unless you want to stay up past your bedtime thrilled by the discovery of a new writer. . . . [A] stunning read.” —The Millions

“Amsterdam blazes through his bleak tale of hope—the true heart of any good dystopia. . . . Thought-provoking entertainment.” —San Antonio Current

“Spare, effective, and, when it needs to be, even stunning. . . . The characters we encounter in these narratives . . . feel alive and whole.” —Orion magazine

“Bold, original, and sneakily affecting.” —Emily Maguire, author of Taming the Beast
“[A] clever blend of humor and razor-edged sadness” —Courier-Mail (Brisbane)

“Sharp. . . . [Amsterdam] is a keen observer of people.” —The Wichita Eagle

“A fresh, modern voice . . . Amsterdam’s writing is tight, calculated, and compelling.” —Andrew Hutchinson, author of Rohypnol

“In this book, we hear a voice as naturally surprising as the jazz of Django Reinhardt or Dexter Gordon. A real writer, in short.” —Gary Indiana, author of The Shanghai Gesture and Utopia’s Debris

“Preternaturally assured, finely crafted and thoroughly accomplished.” —The Age (Melbourne)

“Gleefully apocalyptic. . . . As ever with this kind of dystopian fiction, there is a satisfying tingle in imagining an Armageddon just around the corner. But Amsterdam also gives his book an emotional heart; it lies in the contrast between the narrator’s very ordinary emotions—jealousy, fear, the desire to belong—and his extraordinary circumstances.” —Financial Times

About this Author

A native New Yorker, Steven Amsterdam has been living in Melbourne, Australia, since 2003. He works as a palliative care nurse. Things We Didn’t See Coming won the Age Book of the Year (Australia) and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (UK) and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (Australia).