April 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ by Steven Amsterdam

By Emmett Stinson

Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming presents a hybrid fiction - even the blurbs at the front of the book alternately call its contents both "stories" and a "novel". Neither term is entirely accurate. While the nine sections comprising the work can be read as discrete stories, they are enriched by points of convergence and a shared context. And context is everything in Amsterdam's book, since everything occurs in a world hovering on the brink of various ecological cataclysms, Malthusian catastrophes and full-blown apocalypses. In this sense, Things We Didn't See Coming is doubly hybrid, fusing literary and science fiction - a union that has also been explored by such writers as David Mitchell, Neal Stephenson and Alasdair Gray.

Amsterdam succeeds on both fronts, effectively blending separate genres and different forms to create a cohesive whole. It works partly because the sections share, or seem to share (it's ambiguous), an unnamed protagonist, tracing his maturation from childhood to age 40. Despite being a petty thief and a ruthless survivor when required, he remains sympathetic due to his periodic guilt and capacity for occasional kindness. Unlike the devastated landscape of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Amsterdam's apocalyptic futures don't completely reduce his characters to base survivalism; apparently, not even the end of the world can stop us from worrying about relationship troubles, seeking our parents' approval and envying neighbours' successes.

This emphasis on the importance of the little things even in the midst of disaster enables Amsterdam to present dystopia in a different light than his precursors. His authorial restraint is impressive: the narrator never explains how he has moved from one situation to another, nor are the causes of the disasters elucidated, so the reader encounters each new world on its own terms. The prose is also generally restrained, yet the language intensifies when characters reach an epiphany, creating some moments of actual beauty - a technique that invigorates these powerful experiences. Nonetheless, the minimalism of some sections feels monotonous, and the dialogue occasionally serves as little more than a placeholder; but these are issues common to first-time novelists still developing their style. Ultimately, Things We Didn't See Coming auspiciously launches both Sleepers Publishing's foray into novel-length fiction and Steven Amsterdam's literary career.

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