Amsterdam, Steven

Review: “Things We Didn’t See Coming” by Steven Amsterdam [2009]

I rarely read novels set in a dystopian future with the only other I can remember being George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I find many inaccessible and, quite frankly, I’m not all too interested in reading about bleak futures. We’ll get there eventually. There’s no need to rush it forward. 🙂

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of vignettes set in the not too distant future. We follow an anonymous male from childhood where the world as we know it is on the brink of some catastrophic collapse on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day. This is not dissimilar from all the hype that surrounded the Y2K bug when everybody thought that everything would collapse due to computers being unable to recognise the year 2000. The narrator’s father packs up the family and heads to the relative safety of the country at the boy’s grandparent’s property. The boy’s father warns and apologises for the bleak future the boy is facing.

We are arrogant, stupid – we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us. What we call knowledge, what you learn in school about fossils and dinosaurs, it’s all hunches. What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We didn’t worry about the right things.

The future is a hospital, packed with sick people, packed with hurt people, people on stretchers in the halls, and suddenly the lights go out, the water shuts off, and you know in your heart that they’re never coming back on. That’s the future. – p. 22

We follow the boy through to the future as he grows up. As a teenager, it is clear the boy has lost his innocence, being a small time thief, and living in a fractured world. There is deep division between the city and country communities, both with advantages and disadvantages such as medicine and food. The boy’s parents have disappeared and he is being looked after, or rather looks after, his grandparents and attempts to escape back out into the country.

In another flash, the boy is grown up and working as a government official. The weather is a constant downpour of unrelenting rain and food is extremely scarce. Bark, rats and cushion stuffing make up some meals. Struggle for survival and struggles against the government officials is on-going for those who are still independent. Strange diseases are rife and part of the boy’s bargain for working as a government official is that he gets medicine.

In further flashes, the environment stabilises somewhat although disease is still prevalent. The boy experiences love but loses her somewhere along the line. At one stage, he works as a speech writer while embroiled in a menage-a-trois with his girlfriend and the politician he works for. Children and medication are particular scarce although medical treatment is readily available for those who have the right amount of money. Sound familiar?

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a very accessible and rather sad read. It shows the possible, and not so unrecognisable, future and leads us from our current environment into what might be. While the novel appears in a series of vignettes, this works especially well as we follow the boy from an innocent and recognisable childhood to a future filled with sickness and corruption. The ideas of our heavy reliance on industrialisation and unsustainable mass consumption, health care, heavy medication of the human body and climate and environmental change are some of the issues that underlies the stories.

You’ll have a clean slate, a world of opportunity, you’ll never look back. But nothing heals because, if you lose everything once, running becomes part of you and you’re always looking back. – p. 91

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