My first observation on picking up this book of interconnected short stories was the David Mitchell-style tribute it pays to our world. Think Cloud Atlas, or Ron Currie Jr’s uproariously funny God is Dead. Yes, the setting is apocalyptic, the world has come to an end, or is about to — and yet our unnamed protagonist who grows from childhood to age 40 in these nine stories, worries about mundane things like relationships and the human need to be liked.
Steven Amsterdam is a debut writer who 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 (Pantheon, $24) a far more hopeful book than its subject indicates. Even in the face of cataclysm, people find the space to reinforce their humanity. “What We Know Now,” for instance, is about a man on the run from an end-of-the-century computer virus reminiscent of Y2K. “What is he so worried about?” his father asks at one point. “It’s always been the end of the world. What did we have this century? World War I, the influenza, the Depression, World War II, concentration camps, the atomic bomb. Now he’s scared about a computer glitch?”
Indeed, there is something surreal about this conversation, knowing as the reader does how Y2K turned out to be an anti-climax, and yet, the new century began with the most dastardly atrocity in history on American soil.
Amsterdam plugs this unease with felicity. In “The Forest for the Trees,” marriage as we know it has transformed into something called a “practical union,” which allows couples rights to “extra-union sex.” The story is about the break the unnamed narrator is taking from his union to Margo to live with Juliet, a senator. “The practical part,” he says, “it’s almost like marriage, except it doesn’t crumble at every whiff of infidelity.”
Changing social mores are not restricted to relationships alone. “The Profit Motive” is about a job interview that the protagonist attends, where his clothing has been impregnated with all manner of dyes and chemicals that enable the interviewing panel to measure the candidate’s truthfulness.
In “The Theft That Got Me Here”, the narrator drives his old grandparents to Rural to help them relive their past. Apparently, the world, or at least the unnamed country in this collection, has been divided into Urban vs. Rural. All other differentiating factors have evaporated. People who are “modern” have opted for Urban, others for Rural, with a few suburban lovers going for the middle. The story, another meditation on a changing world, is a deeply moving paean to family ties.
My only problem with the collection — and this is big praise for a debut — is that the author fills his characters, particularly the randomly occurring ones, with enough life and panache to merit a full-blown novel that gives them greater voice. Pity that he restricted himself to disparate stories.
All said, Things We Didn’t See Coming will appeal to readers who like their apocalyptic fiction dressed in cheery hues. If you were disappointed by the pornography of despair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, you are sure to enjoy this one.
This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.