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Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
Paperback $16.00
Feb 08, 2011 | ISBN 9780307473608

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“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 chillilngly 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 round 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

Author Q&A

A collection that becomes a life—stories that take the narrator, at first a young boy on the eve of this millennium, forward into a wild assortment of futures.  Each one is set only a few years after the one before, but his struggles evolve fast so the terrain of each story keeps changing.
Q: Is this how you see the world?
Yes. It’s easy for me to imagine that the same man would climb up a tree to avoid a pandemic; get a job giving grants to disaster refugees; live in a three-way relationship with his girlfriend and a senator; provide adventure tours for the terminally ill . . . . Why not?
Q: So life is going to be difficult. We’ve seen a few dystopian books lately.
I don’t think of THINGS WE DIDN’T SEE COMING as fully dystopian because there are utopian moments in there. And I wouldn’t even call it speculative because I’m not offering the stories up as a prediction. Each one came up as a different riff on the stuff we hope for, the stuff we worry about. So he runs through a gauntlet of experiences—some ecstatic, some decidedly less so.
Q: In an Op-Ed for The Age (9/29/09), you wrote: “The recent H1N1 pandemic offered a tidy illustration of disproportionate panic.  Of course, the flu could have become more deadly, but it didn’t and hasn’t (so far).  Or, to cite a safer example, a Times writer in 1894 was alarmed by the rising number of horses being used in London and calculated that by 1944 every street would be under nine feet of manure.  What was the big issue for London streets in 1944?  Exactly.”  Do we worry about the future too much?
The truly Zen would gently suggest that any amount is too much. I try to be honest though: worrying tickles some of my pleasure receptors. How many times have I clicked on a link about the Ebola virus spreading? Writing this book was a bit of an exorcism of some of those fears—but I think the stories (and books set in the future, in general) say more about where we are now than where we are going. I was raised by some first-class worriers and don’t imagine I’ll ever fully be free of it myself, but my work as a nurse has forced me to go from being fearful and voyeuristic about panic to proactive: If the patient is bleeding, you can’t sit there worrying that the patient is going to die, you do something. In the stories, he does what he has to do to survive.
Q: So is the book hopeful?
It depends whom you ask. The responses I’ve gotten make me think it’s a bit of a Rorschach test.

Q: There’s a whole lot of love for you in Australia. The reviews ranged from glowing to gushing. Then, the major paper there, The Age, chose THINGS WE DIDN’T SEE COMING as their book of the year.  Then, you were chosen as one of Melbourne’s most influential people of 2009.  How does it all feel? 
Great, of course. Still, it’s ironic that I grew up in New York City with a literary agent for a mother, spent ten years working in publishing, making a wide range of friends and contacts, but had to come to another hemisphere and a tiny publisher in a town where I have no connections to get it together to finish a book and find literary success. I’ll take it. I’ve been writing since the seventh grade, so I don’t feel that I’ve exactly cheated anyone to get the praise. It seems like a solid chorus of confirmation as I go forward.
Q: Why did you choose not to name your narrator?
The first story I wrote was about this boy with his grandparents, escaping the city under lockdown, going on a bit of a crime spree. His grandparents had all these terms of endearment for him. So there was no need for a name. As the other stories came, it seemed like adding a name would have been an afterthought, too conscious. I could have wasted whole afternoons deciding between Nicholas and Nick and Nico. Clearly there would have been a difference, but it wouldn’t have felt organic at that point. I’m firmly in favor of leaving gaps for the reader to fill. How often do you think of your own name and really relate it to who you are? It didn’t seem necessary.
Q: This is your first published book and it’s in the first person, so is there a certain amount of autobiography here?
I do consider myself, like the narrator, something of an artful dodger, though not quite to the same exciting extent. It goes back to my Life is Busy thesis. Some random moments: After college, I’m a copywriter in Tokyo, hiding under my desk as the building shakes during an earthquake. While working as a producer’s assistant in LA, the Rodney King verdict comes down and I watch my supermarket get looted and then burnt down. Just after September 11, I’m a graphic designer and the building I work in is evacuated twice a day because of bomb threats. Two years later I’m working as a pastry chef at a small resort on an island in Lake Michigan, trying to save the ice cream I’ve just made from melting during a power outage after a storm. Living in Melbourne last year, right after a day of deadly bushfires, I’m working in the psychiatric ward, talking to people traumatized by what had happened. Looking back, I understand how I got from one point to the next. Likewise from an historical angle, we can see how plate tectonics, racial inequality, terrorism, blackouts, and climate change can operate. But were any of these changes predictable? I doubt it. As likely as anything else, I may next find myself being elected the president of an island nation, just as a tsunami burps up from the sea floor. Looking back, it will all make sense.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
Vladimir Nabokov, for many things, starting with this description of a dead man, from Lolita: “ . . . a quarter of his face gone, and two flies beside themselves with a dawning sense of unbelievable luck.” José Saramago. for making the breakdown of a society completely recognizable in Blindness. Charlotte Bronte, for every last bit of suspense and satisfaction in Jane Eyre. Lillian Hellman, for being such a switched on (if, unreliable) narrator of her life. James Cain, for always keeping his characters aware of who owes who a bottle of Scotch, how far away the blonde’s husband has to be so there’ll be enough time to steal a kiss, and what happened to the knife that was sitting there on the table five minutes ago. And many others.
Q: Which way is forward?
I’m staying in Melbourne for now. It loves me, I love it. I have my partner, my job—I’ll be working as a palliative care nurse as well as a psychiatric nurse this year—and two chickens. In Australia, the book is leading me to speaking engagements and teaching workshops at libraries, literary festivals, and schools, all of which are new and interesting ways for me to engage with the reader. And because of the socialist tendencies of the country, these gigs pay, which isn’t bad. So I’m following all of these trails. Somehow I’ve got all of that going on and I’m still carving out time to work on my next book, which is about, among other things, special powers.

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