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03.30.10

A Great Dystopian Novel

Why do we love apocalyptic fiction like The Road? Taylor Antrim hails a stunning debut of dystopian stories by Steven Amsterdam and says they’re perfectly timed for our own strange moment.

Got dystopia fatigue? No? Me neither. Why is our can-do country, tied at inception to the pursuit of happiness, so reliably interested in visions of its own demise? Well sure, I can think of a few ideas—a pair of endless wars, an economic crisis, a solid majority convinced the country is on the wrong track. And yet it has been a rich century for literary dystopia, and writers from Wells to Huxley to Orwell to Atwood to McCarthy have taught us that anxiety about our future finds expression through good times and bad.

In fact, pessimism probably has nothing to do with the genre’s persistent appeal. The animating theme of most dystopia fiction is survival. The Road’s setting may be hammeringly bleak, but what got McCarthy on Oprah’s couch was the resilience in his novel, its picture of paternal love in the ashes. Cataclysm lit reassures as much as it disturbs: The future’s a wasteland, but look who’s still around, scrapping by.

Weirdly timely and unexpectedly moving, Things We Didn’t See Coming reminds me why books about dystopia (unlike, say, those about vampires, zombies, or angels) will never go out of style.

Steven Amsterdam’s haunting debut Things We Didn’t See Coming is a case in point. These linked stories (which read more like a novel than a collection) provide snapshots of an unpleasant tomorrow—flood, drought, political strife, viral threat—but the narrator is so endlessly adaptable, so human in his loneliness and desire for connection that you can’t help but feel empathy and uplift as you read.

Who is this Steven Amsterdam? His two-line bio tells us he’s an American living in Australia and that he works as a psychiatric nurse. The book has no dedication, no acknowledgments page; it won a literary award in Australia but has had little hype here. The jacket design is clever, but gives no hint about what’s inside. All of which is to say that Things We Didn’t See Coming feels like a genuine discovery. It is the most compelling portrait of dystopia I’ve read in years.

book-cover---things-we-didnt-see-coming
Things We Didn’t See Coming. By Steven Amsterdam. 208 pages. Pantheon. $24. ()

Albeit one with a slightly flatfooted start. The first of these nine chapters takes place not in the future but on the eve of Y2K with the narrator’s father packing up the family car. He’s convinced blackouts are coming and wants to get his family out into the country before midnight. A modest domestic conflict ensues; the narrator’s mother thinks her husband is being paranoid and the boy’s loyalties are split. On the stroke of midnight the father delivers a warning to his son: “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 my friend.”

Actually, the future is worse, and the rest of Amsterdam’s book possesses imaginative kick lacking in these early pages. In “The Theft That Got Me Here,” civilization has broken down, and the city and countryside (in an unspecified North American setting) have descended into rival political factions separated by barricades. A haywire climate figures in “Dry Land” with the narrator, now in his early twenties, riding a “rain horse” through perpetual storm and scavenging goods from homes. He encounters a mother and daughter who are not as friendly as they seem.

Amsterdam knows that the most convincing dystopias are those unencumbered by backstory. There are no explanatory pages about how we got here, only quick-take references to food shortages, quarantine, and violent weather events (“The Summer of Hurricanes”). The book’s best story, “Cake Walk,” introduces a deadly contagion that has driven the narrator and his intrepid girlfriend Margo to a desolate campsite. While Margo goes off on a foraging mission, the narrator must contend with a menacing stranger who is coughing and spitting blood. It’s a gripping encounter and ends in an unexpected way: The narrator feels less anxiety, not more. He wants to stop stealing from others, to find a way to be good.

Amsterdam’s storytelling is fragmentary and episodic but his agile, lightly comic prose carries you along. As the government becomes more and more autocratic, the narrator learns to adapt, going from scavenger to bureaucrat to a politician’s kept man, to member of a back-to-nature commune. It is affecting and convincing the way his humanity survives so much unexpected flux. We’re last with him at age 40, working as a tour guide, seeking out his long-lost father for one final conversation.

The future’s a mess. Amsterdam’s book says get used to it, roll with the punches, do your best. Weirdly timely and unexpectedly moving, Things We Didn’t See Coming reminds me why books about dystopia (unlike, say, those about vampires, zombies, or angels) will never go out of style.

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Taylor Antrim is fiction critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.