Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Things We Didn't See Coming
  • Written by Steven Amsterdam
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307473608
  • Our Price: $15.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Things We Didn't See Coming

Buy now from Random House

  • Things We Didn't See Coming
  • Written by Steven Amsterdam
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307378910
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Things We Didn't See Coming

Things We Didn't See Coming

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

Written by Steven AmsterdamAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Steven Amsterdam


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 02, 2010
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37891-0
Published by : Anchor Knopf
Things We Didn't See Coming Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Things We Didn't See Coming
  • Email this page - Things We Didn't See Coming
  • Print this page - Things We Didn't See Coming


Richly imagined and darkly comic, Things We Didn’t See Coming follows a single man over three decades as he tries to survive in an increasingly savage apocalyptic world that is at once utterly fantastic and disturbingly familiar. Here, coming-of-age is complicated not only by family troubles and mercurial love affairs, but treacherous weather, unstable governments, pandemic, and technology run amuck.


What We Know Now

For the first time, Dad is letting me help pack the car, but only because it’s getting to be kind of an emergency. He says we’ve each got to pull more than our own weight. Even though we’re only going to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, he’s packing up the kitchen with pasta, cans of soup, and peanut butter—plus the toolbox and first-aid kit. Carrying a carton past the living room, I see Cate there, trying not to pay attention. “Almost done, Cate,” I tell her.

“I’m your mother. Call me by that name,” she says.

I say, “Mother.”

My job is to bring everything out to the car. We’ll load it all up when I’m done. He parked in front of our building and put orange cones down on the road on either side of it two days ago. None of the neighbors said a word and he asked me not to make a big deal. The closeness makes it easy to keep a lookout on our stuff, while I’m running up and down the two flights of steps. No one’s on the street when I step outside so I go up for another load.

The Benders on the third floor went away the day before Christmas, but Dad said he wanted to wait until the day of New Year’s Eve to maximize preparation. He says this is a special new year and we’re taking special measures. He says this year I have to stay up until after midnight.

Because he’s still inside organizing boxes and Cate is just turning pages and not looking up on purpose when he drags them past her, I decide to stay out of their way. To help out, though, I packed up all the batteries from all my games and my portable radio because Dad says they would be useful.

While it’s OK for me to hold the key, I’m not allowed to start the car. I think about turning it in the ignition and then saying that I was just checking the fuel gauge, which is all right. But I might get in trouble because I already know he’s been to the gas station to fill up, not to mention we’ve got two big red jugs of gas in the back of our station wagon. Cate knows I know about it because I asked her. She said to just be patient.

I’m sitting on the car, guarding our stuff and scratching at a chip in the maroon paint between my legs, when Milo from downstairs comes out. He acts like he’s running out to get to the store before it closes. Then he sees me and slows down and starts asking questions. This is what he always does and it makes my back go up like a cat. Where are we going? How come we’re leaving? What am I going to be doing with my lame grandmother at midnight? (He’s twelve and is going to a party with friends.) I answer as quickly as possible, keeping an eye on our stuff, not because I think Milo’s going to take it, but because I’m trying to figure out why Dad packed all the kitchen knives. Cate sure doesn’t know about that or she wouldn’t be keeping so quiet right now.

Milo finally says what he’s wanted to say since he saw me in the window and came downstairs and it’s this: His father, who works in computers, is going to make 125 grand tonight, because he’s going to stop blackouts and everything from happening. Once he tells me this, he hangs around a minute, looking at our suitcases and our car. It makes the stuff look bad somehow. He raises his eyebrows at me and goes back inside. He wasn’t going to the store.

I know what a grand is because Milo’s always telling me how much his father makes (a lot). My grandmother said not to use the word, because it makes me sound like a little gangster.

Finally, Dad comes out dragging the last thing, the cooler, and he’s got a bag of vegetables balanced on top of it.

“We’re bringing vegetables to a farm?” I ask.

“Just give me a hand.”

He doesn’t say much about my arrangement of our stuff on the street, but begins right away loading it. He’s got that look that means I shouldn’t bother him, but I tell him what Milo told me about the 125 grand. He doesn’t look at me but he laughs and asks me where Milo’s father is going to be working tonight. I say that I think it’s the same place he usually does, in an office downtown. Dad shakes his head and says, “He’s a dead man.”

Cate steps out into the cool air, with her bright blue wheelie bag, which looks funny and small considering what Dad is busy cramming into the trunk. She looks up and down the block to see who’s watching. The rest of the street looks normal. I hold up my saggy backpack to show her how little I’m bringing, and then she tells me to get my jacket on. She wheels her bag over to Dad, who’s sticking cans of tuna fish around all of our stuff. Cate stares at him like she’s watching a dog digging a hole that’s way too deep.

She gets really close to him and asks, “You sure you don’t want to just stick around and knock over a bank when things get crazy?”

He laughs like he doesn’t think it’s funny.

“How can you knock over a bank?” I ask.

She smiles and tells me she’s counting on me to be the only sane person tonight and possibly into the next century. I ask her again how you can knock over a bank, but she starts helping Dad. I stretch out on the backseat so I can listen to them.

Cate says, “There’s no reason to be stressed right now. We’re all together. We’re doing everything to protect ourselves. We’re taking all the precautions you wanted.”

He keeps packing.

After they finish and Dad decides I can be trusted with the mini-fridge next to me (“That food is not for tonight, it’s for the long haul”), we get on the road just as the sun is starting to go down.

Dad dodges cars quicker than usual as we make our way through streets of dressed-up people, some already drunk. In a few minutes, we swing up onto the expressway. Cate says, “Not much traffic for doomsday.”

“Can you please let up on the sarcasm?”

Cate shuts down and nobody says anything for a while.

When we’re out of the city, she puts on the radio. Pretty soon, we’re on country roads, more than halfway there. On the radio, people in London are getting ready for a wild party. I say that it’s great that one night can make people have fun all over the world. She agrees and says to Dad, “London Bridge still seems to be standing. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

This makes Dad quiet and angry. She looks at his face for half a minute, then looks out the window. We zip past farms that are dark and farms with lights on and cars parked all over their driveways.

Dad, talking like she’s not there, tells me that the world is large and complicated, with too many parts relying on other parts and they all octopus out. Then he starts talk- ing like he’s writing one of his letters to the editor, going into stuff I don’t understand but have heard a lot of times before. “Our interdependence is unprecedented in history. It’s foolish.”

I wish I was on a plane over everything. We’d be flying west, going through all the New Year’s Eves, looking down just as they happen. I’d have to stay awake for twenty-four hours of nighttime, but I’d be looking out the little window and watching ripples of fireworks below, each wave going off under us as we fly over it. I start to talk about this, but then decide to save it for Grandma. Dad doesn’t think planes are safe today either.

Cate puts her hand behind Dad’s head to squeeze his neck, which means she wants to help him. “What else can we do for you, babe? We’re set if anything goes wrong. If it doesn’t, we’ll have a quiet night of it with my parents. It’s all right now. All right?” She looks at me so I can also tell him that we’ll be safe. I nod to mean yes, but don’t say anything out loud because I’m not sure if it’s what he wants me to say or if it’s even true.

“What do you think?” He looks at me through the rearview mirror. We both have green eyes. Sometimes, he says, it’s like looking in a mirror.

Just then, we bump into the car ahead of us. Not a big bump, a touch, enough to scare everybody. I‘m not wearing a seat belt so I get knocked into the back of Dad’s seat and a can of tuna fish shoots over onto my seat. It’s nothing serious. Cate reaches her hand back to me and grabs my knee to make sure I’m all right. Once it happens I realize that while I was looking at Dad I also saw the car slowing down in front of us, but it all happened so fast I couldn’t even call out for us to stop.

The car we hit pulls onto the gravel and we follow close behind like a kid trailing a teacher to the principal’s office. Dad says, “Shit!” and punches the button to turn off the radio.

Cate suddenly lets him have it. “Don’t blame the radio. It’s because you’ve been so paranoid and scattered that this happened.” Here she’s talking about something else. “We’ll get through the other side and promise me that you’ll be better? Promise me.” He doesn’t say anything. She sinks back and says to herself, “It would just be so nice if things would work again.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Steven Amsterdam|Author Q&A

About Steven Amsterdam

Steven Amsterdam - Things We Didn't See Coming

Photo © Corry De Neef

Steven Amsterdam is a native New Yorker who moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 2003. He currently works as a palliative care nurse.

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.



“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
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, topics for discussion, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Steven Amsterdam's acclaimed debut, Things We Didn’t See Coming. An unnamed narrator survives through thirty years of a strange-familiar future, navigating the varieties of expected apocalypse. With an assured voice that is both sensitive and wry, Amsterdam turns the struggle to the true surprises of life—love, trust, and family.

About the Guide

Nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and winner of the Age Book of the Year, Things We Didn’t See Coming follows its narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that becomes increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold. In the first story, “What We Know Now”—set on the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable—we meet the then nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. The remaining stories capture the strange—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny—circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival: trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor, taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that despite the violence and brutality of his days the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity and humor. 

Dark and darkly comic, Things We Didn’t See Coming is haunting, restrained, and beautifully crafted—a stunning debut.

About the Author

A native New Yorker, Steven Amsterdam has been living in Melbourne, Australia, since 2003. He works as a palliative care nurse. Things We Didn’t See Coming won the Age Book of the Year (Australia), and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (UK) and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (Australia).

Discussion Guides

1. Each chapter involves a different kind of disaster or milestone of decline. How far into the future do the different chapters feel and why? Which events or societal shifts seem possible?

2. The only chapter set in the past, “What We Know Now” takes place on the eve of Y2K, with the narrator’s father panicking about the grid collapsing. How does this starting point—about a disaster that didn’t happen—change your reading of the apocalyptic changes that come in later chapters?

3. Things We Didn’t See Coming has an unusual structure. Each chapter is set at least three years apart. Most conclude with the narrator finding himself in uncertain territory, with issues that seem to be resolved by the start of the next chapter. Are these linked short stories or is it a discontinuous narrative? How do the chronological gaps between the chapters shape your reading of the narrator’s life? What questions do they leave unanswered?

4. The Guardian wrote “Amsterdam’s tone is refreshingly unapocalyptic.” What sort of counterpoint does the narrator’s wry outlook provide to the severity of the setting?

5. Neither the narrator nor the book’s terrain is ever specifically named. What does having an unnamed narrator do for a story like this? Where is this story set? Why?

6. While watching Robocop, the narrator comments, “the futuristic stuff is interesting because they got everything so wrong.” (p. 122) Given that Things We Didn’t See Coming is mostly set in the future, how does his comment relate? Does the book feel like a predictive text?

7. Recent novels that take place in dystopian settings, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, similarly portray worlds of deprivation and social breakdown. In what way is Things We Didn’t See Coming different from other contemporary books about the future?

8. Land Management looks the other way as long as we clear out the stragglers. They keep us on horses to prevent us from carrying away too much of the take. They say it saves on fuel, but the way it is now they’ve got to provide me as well as my horse with enough meds to stay functional. A jeep would be cheaper and faster.” (p. 50)  “I had just started in Verification, [Margo] had finished training to work in Grief, but both of us were helping out Rescue.” (p. 95) Despite the continual chaos, government control and bureaucracy is evident throughout much of Things We Didn’t See Coming. What aspects of its presence seem familiar? As the narrator works in several different government roles over the course of the book, how does his relationship to the system change?

9. Do the narrator and Margo have a “Chemical Basis for Love” (p. 99)? Is a “practical union” (p. 111) a good solution for them?

10. Health plays a significant role in the book. Illness impacts the grandmother, the narrator, as well as his tour group (“My niche is the last-hurrah set, folks with at least two major cancers or a primary ailment, but still sporty enough to manage a little adventure.”) (p. 184). To what extent does it inform the decisions he makes?

11. It is sometimes said that inside every dystopian novel is a utopian novel trying to get out. If this is true, and they are two sides of one idea, why might dystopian novels be more prevalent at present? Several reviewers have spoken of a sense of hope throughout Things We Didn’t See Coming. Where do you find it?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

Maragaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake; Jim Crace, The Pesthouse; Otto Friedrich, The End of the World: A History; P.D. James, The Children of Men; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; Cormac McCarthy, The Road; Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory; José Saramago, Blindness; George Saunders, Pastoralia.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: