Book Review: Things We Didn’t See Coming

Hullo to the faithful and newcomers alike.

First of all, I want to frame this as a constant feature. I’ve been reading a lot more, and I think it (obviously) helps to look at the work of others with a critical slant. Accordingly, every time I finish a book I’m going to write a little review. The format will consist of taking lines I enjoyed or that stood out, and expanding on the ideas they express. It’s a good way to get examples and chunk up the review. Course, it’ll be easier with eBooks!

The first book is a newish title called Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam. It’s a story about the apocalypse—or maybe apocalypses. Poignantly, I read this article today that suggests novels are made of short stories. It’s true of a lot of fiction, and may become an increasingly important feature with the serialisation of eBooks. But let’s get on with the book at hand:

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.

Things feels like a bunch of individual stories that share a constant protagonist and the same world (which can be a little confusing to begin with). It’s a very large fictional world, but the parts don’t necessarily rely on each other. Sure, there are some themes and characters that stay throughout, but for the most part each chapter can be (perhaps should be) read alone. It’s a great sensation as time leaps forward through every stage of the downfall of mankind—and (spoiler) the eventual undoing of one man. Each segment squirms out on its own to explore a variety of themes.

Grandpa likes to say: “Everything will be fine until it’s not. Then we can worry.”

That seems to sum up humanity. We don’t worry about the past, or when we do we make hollow vows to never repeat it. This book concerns itself with the main characters immediate reaction to whatever situation he finds himself in, and an awful lot can happen at the end of the world. Whether it’s an outbreak of virulent plague, or acceptance of cancer, he deals with issues as they come over the horizon. It’s true of all life, whether in civilisation or at the end of it.

It’s the way I’ve been living as long as I can remember, always on the lookout for every unwatched package and every unlocked door—it all suddenly seems barbaric.

A key motif that appears over and over again is the action of stealing. At one stage our, ahem, hero promises to never steal again. Of course, in later stories he does, but a seed of honesty is sown. What does it take to be truthful in a world gone to the cleaners? The character’s arc is a long one over the course of the novel, and his actions always seem, if not just, at least justifiable. Each story sees a shift in perspective, both of himself and the world around him, and by the end all these incremental changes add up to, well, something he didn’t see coming.

I want the jug gone, I want her hand in mine. I want to trust her completely. I want to know we’re in this together.

The use of the first-person is also sublime. Considering that I am working on a piece that uses this perspective, it’s a confidence booster. Clearly this book is set in an imaginary future, which is perhaps why it works. It could be happening now, so real are the settings and situations—so real that the reader slips right on into the head of the protagonist. It could be us. We hope it’s us. Not because of the crappy experiences, but because we get through them with integrity, honour.

There has to be a reason for this to be happening. There’s a lesson here. There’s got to be a reason.

Does there? When the world ends will there be a fully explainable reason to it? Things explores a whole suite of possibilities, all of which we could never see coming. Whether it’s the overarching theme of apocalypse, or the individual, chapter-to-chapter short stories, it’s a fully realised novel that explores the inevitable impossibilities of the future.

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