Steven Amsterdam’s ‘Things we didn’t See Coming’ is a curious tome on a number of levels. For a start, we never find out the narrator’s name. Not a new device, but one which the author carries off well. The structure is unusual. Each chapter is a snapshot of the narrator’s life. The time frame in each moves forward an unspecified amount of time from the previous one, and each jump picks up the story with the narrator deep in the middle of a peculiar predicament. The novel opens on the eve of the millennium (1999), when he is nine years old. He’s packed into the family car, as his paranoid father tries to save him and his family from the millennium bug. Something we saw coming, that never came to pass.
As the novel continues forward we see a civilisation that is crumbling. Our narrator is doing what he can to avoid falling through its cracks. He is at the whim of unpredictable changes in global circumstances that have altered millions of lives; things we didn’t see coming. Amsterdam’s decline in civilisation is piecemeal. Small changes have large implications globally and for the individual.
Much of what has happened to the narrator between the chapters of his story is left to the reader to try to piece together. This gives the novel a fragmented feel; making it a series of vignettes of a world in decline, rather than a traditional dystopian narrative. This broken form of storytelling will not be to everybody’s tastes, but whilst I enjoyed some chapters more than others, I liked the extra wiggle room the device allows. It prompts the reader to think about what the chain of events might have been, and how they relate to our world. The majority of modern dystopian novels are published with the young adult market in mind, so tend to be narrative driven. It was refreshing to read one propelled by characterisation and the human response to adversity.
Despite the bleak events of the book, I found it to be a hopeful tale. Humanity is burdened but not crushed by a tyrannical government, by terrible changes in climate or ravaging disease. Not all the characters are noble, but the tenacity with which they cling to life in this book is uplifting. The world is not bleak and grey as in ‘The Road’; humanity is on the ropes but it is fighting hard, with a heartwarming tenacity. Amsterdam’s view of humanity appears to be brighter than Cormac McCarthy’s. At the centre of the piece is our narrator. A flawed but likeable character. A survivor. His moral code is malleable, but never corrupted.
This is a novel without sensation. It’s a plausible ‘What if?’ An analysis of humanity in the future and an appraisal of society today. ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ is a slender volume but one that packs a strong emotional punch, particularly during the closing stories. Many dystopian novels will be released to a greater fanfare than this novel; very few of them deserve greater attention.