Ten years later, the fears surrounding Y2K have faded mercifully into the recesses of our collective subconscious. The millennium bug never bit — computers didn’t fail, economies didn’t crumble, governments didn’t fall. But Steven Amsterdam’s imaginative first novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming, posits a reality in which the worst predictions came to pass. Told through a sequence of short stories chronicling the life of an unnamed narrator, the book opens on New Year’s Eve, 1999. At midnight of that momentous night, the electrical grid shuts down. Amsterdam’s child protagonist and his father stand in the cold.
This whole thing is symbolic, symbolic of a system that’s hopelessly shortsighted, a system that twenty, thirty years ago couldn’t imagine a time when we might be starting a new century. That’s how limited an animal we are. Do you get it? A whole species that didn’t think to set its clocks the right way. 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 know we aren’t careful enough and that’s about all we know. That’s what I’m trying to protect us from.”
I say, “OK,” because he’s getting more upset as he talks.
“What else haven’t we been paying attention to? I worry about your life, what’s going to happen to you. We can’t think our way out of every problem. We’re not smart enough.”
“Don’t worry so much.”
This only makes him mad. “What’s the right amount of worry? In our time, in your time, there’ll be breakdowns that can’t be fixed. There will be more diseases that can’t be fixed. Water will be as valuable as oil. And you’ll be stuck taking care of a fat generation of useless parents.
Chaos and decay have infiltrated civilization. The structure of the government in Amsterdam’s unnamed country changes from story to story; physical, psychological, and moral breakdowns infest all aspects of society; starvation, plague, and corruption run rampant. To survive, the narrator ekes out an existence as a thief and government worker and, not surprisingly, sometimes both. Companionship and love comes fraught with danger:
If it were just me, I could run off now with whatever I could carry. But it’s not, and how would she find me? Besides, he’d notice if I started packing up and, even if I was able to keep him back, he’d stay and claim whatever I left behind and be here when Margo comes back and infect her in a second. So I’m guarding our spot until she decides to wander home.
Staying awake up here is not what’s tough, but staying quietly balanced is. I’ve managed to hook my legs around one branch and my arms around another and it lets me stay reasonably still while being vigilant — watching, breathing softly through my face mask, waiting for him to die.
The story moves into some surprising social and moral gray areas. Amsterdam tackles such weighty topics as polyamory, euthanasia, suicide, drugs, aging, and anarchy with insight and sensitivity. Employing a breezy, conversational style, Amsterdam blazes through his bleak tale of hope — the true heart of any good dystopia — but culminates in a too-abrupt ending that leaves the reader confused and unsatisfied. Even with this misstep, Things We Didn’t See Coming offers thought-provoking entertainment, and successfully introduces an important new writer. •
Rick Klaw is a professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon based in Austin.