Ah, where would be without the threat of a dysfunctional future? We certainly wouldn’t have Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which would be a shame, but we also wouldn’t have books as diverse as Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, JG Ballard’s The Drought, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale never mind your perennial Brave New Worlds, 1984s and Clockwork Oranges. In some respects, then, it’s a rich seam for an author to mine – in others, it’s an already overcrowded literary subgenre. To make a contribution, to make a worthwhile contribution at any rate, is a challenge. For your contribution to be interesting and worth recommending (for the most part)? Well, we’d find ourselves in the country of high praise. To labour the point a stroke too far, this is where we find ourselves with Steven Amsterdam’s debut, Things We Didn’t See Coming.
Beginning on New Year’s Eve 1999 (when so many people thought the millennial bug would bring the world to a grinding halt) and travelling, chapter by chapter, to an abstract point in the near future, initially the most interesting thing about Things We Didn’t See Coming is its construction. In some respects the novel is like a collection of short stories, with each short story concerning the same character – a character we catch up with at pertinent points throughout his life, a life that is lived in the gradually worsening future. Like (over-used metaphor alert) the film Memento, the reader is forced to re-evaluate where they are at the beginning of each chapter and work out what our protagonist has been through and what has happened to the world. In the beginning, when our narrator is nine years old, fleeing the city in the company of his frayed father and tolerant mother to grandparents remote rural house, it’s easy to view the drama as molehill mountain territory because we know that the millenium bug was just an opportunity for pragmatic alarmists to make money fleecing gullible business leaders). Yet when we catch up with our hero riding a rain horse (which is ‘a horse that has been sensitized to travel in downpours without complaint’), travelling the hill country at the behest of the government finding rural folk who have yet to clear out of their properties as a result of the constant rain, we understand that the climate change birds have come home to roost somewhat. I say ‘somewhat’ because there is no sense of calamity, as such – rather the characters in Things We Didn’t See Coming appear to have been living with trial for a while and what may be outlandish to us is routine for them.
We follow narrator-boy as he shacks up with a mother and her daughter at an abandoned mansion, finding fleeting comfort in the middle of a downpour (he and the mother get together in a freezing outdoor makeshift shower, and are temporarily disturbed by a wild herd of deer:
‘Just then about fifty deer run up the hill past us. I hold her tight, like I could possibly protect us if they got scared and rumbled toward us. One after another for about thirty seconds, they leap as best they can off the wet ground. It’s one of the few times in this job I do nothing but watch. We can’t really see more than their shapes, like shadow cutouts bounding across the black horizon; the rain is white in front of them. You can feel their weight as they pound across the mud. Then they’re gone and I’m not cold anymore because I’ve got a naked someone in my arms. She’s buzzed and I’m buzzed.’
). But it doesn’t end well for him. This is a lesson more or less repeated throughout the book. Fleeting happiness against a backdrop of bureacracy, poverty, natural disaster and human frailty. He hooks up with a woman called Margo who, like our narrator, has a history of petty crime – but Margo lives by her own rules and does what she wants, hanging around when she wants to hang around and splitting for wherever when she needs some alone time. It is during one bout of alone time – and in the midst of a virulent disease that has people coughing up blood – that he finds himself caught in a dialogue with a soon-to-be deadman. He experiences a sort of epiphany and makes a decision that fate appears to be playing along with at the chapter’s close only for the following chapter to reveal again the fact that the best of intentions are often not enough to forge significant character change. There are other things the endure, though – his early foray into working for the Government conspires with his ambivalent and perverse relationship with Margo to protect him (somewhat) from the changes in the world, shacking up with a senator for a while and then, later, joining a stadium of other public sector workers to get a good job in the brave new world. Along the way he pragmatically embraces a sort of spirituality, fights illness and eventually reunites with his father who, arguably, saw a lot of what was coming coming.
In the beginning, I lapped up Things We Didn’t See Coming feeling like this was the kind of book I would like to write, the kind of book that, if it appeared on a shelf in a bookshop with my name in, I’d be inordinately proud of. This feeling receded somewhat as the book wore on because I think I wouldn’t have been able to resist writing about some of what was actually happening in the world – in Things We Didn’t See Coming, the things are resolutely in the background and rarely really come to the foreground. This isn’t a criticism. It comes down to the choices a writer makes in the book that they are crafting. I suppose it would be fair to say that there was a slight divergence between me and Amsterdam as the book progressed which may indicate that it lost its hold on me a fraction (I’m willing to admit as much) – but, for all that, it’s well written and it’s stayed in my head for the last few weeks, since I read it. In this age of continual consumption, you probably can’t ask for more from a book than that.
Any Cop?: All told, Things We Didn’t See Coming is an interesting and recommended piece of speculative fiction that puts Steven Amsterdam very much on the map as a name to watch.