In the opening moments of “What We Know Now”—the first of nine connected stories making up Steven Amsterdam’s debut novel—readers aren’t told the narrator’s name or gender. It takes nearly 20 pages to figure out the latter, and the book never does reveal the former. That’s typical of Amsterdam’s approach to the apocalypse. It approaches sneakily. It’s understated and terse, hard to piece together. Which makes for an unusual collection: Unlike most atrocity exhibitions, Things We Didn’t See Coming seems more plausible and speculative than allegorical. The problem is that the compression never becomes pointed enough. It’s easy-reading devastation.
Amsterdam follows the narrator over three decades, from the eve of Y2K onward. “What We Know Now” ends without making it clear whether the book takes place in an alternate universe where all the computers really did crash and precipitate disaster. But that’s irrelevant. Throughout the stories, there are matter-of-fact, unexplained allusions to floods, barricades, urban-vs.-rural tensions, biological plagues, and the like. Life continues, and the narrator is resilient, taking legitimate jobs when he can and stealing when he can’t. The cumulative portrait is impressive and believable.
But Things is often frustrating, in ways as hard to pin down as the disasters taking place at the fringes. In “Cake Walk,” the narrator and his girlfriend Margo wait out a plague in the forest as he contemplates an end to theft and living honestly. “If we are going to make it, we can make it without theft,” he pledges. “This is not about God, it’s about me and the way I want to live and die.” The moral heft of that decision is stated, but it lacks context. Amsterdam makes it clear that his narrator is neither the best nor the worst of the survivors, but the narrative gaps thrust readers into a present tense where moral quandaries are being resolved without any cumulative effect.
That’s a shame, because Amsterdam’s understated predictions are refreshing in their own right. The larger moral/thematic framework is missing, though, and it’s hard to extrapolate from the gaps. Watching Robocop with Margo, the narrator muses on what the movie got wrong: “Robotics were promising and crime was grim, so they made a movie about it. But then violent crime resolved… and robotics fizzled. Next? You think you’re worrying about the right thing and then you’re sideswiped.” That’s as close Things gets to a framework to latch onto; the narrator is effectively describing what happens in this collection. With the prose purposefully stripped down to an intentionally bland surface, that isn’t enough.