Things We Didn't See Coming

About the author

Steven Amsterdam lives in Melbourne, having grown up in New York City. He has worked in many occupations, including as a pastry chef and book designer. He is currently (in 2010) a psychiatric and palliative care nurse at Melbourne’s The Alfred hospital. Although he has published several short stories, Things We Didn't See Coming is Amsterdam’s first extended work of fiction. The book – a series of stories – met with remarkable success in Australia, winning The Age Book of the Year award in 2009, among several others.


The book is set amidst a series of catastrophic events that take place in the early to mid 21st century – from the end of 1999 to about 2030 – and describes a terrifyingly plausible alternative future in which the planet is no longer capable of adequately supporting human life. The stories are loosely structured around a series of disasters, both natural and man-made. These stories, written in the first person, are linked by a nameless narrator whose circumstances are constantly shifting.
  • As a boy of 10, the narrator is prepared by his father to flee from the potentially devastating effects of the Y2K bug. After Y2K passes, he goes to live with his mother in the city.
  • At 17, as a teenager living with his grandparents, he leaves the city for the country on an ill-fated trip, which results in both his grandparents’ deaths.
  • In his early 20s, he takes on a job evacuating flooded properties for the government, during which an attempt is made on his life.
  • In his mid 20s, he lives in a city apartment with his girlfriend Margo, subsequently moving to a tent in the desert when a plague hits.
  • In his late 20s, he becomes separated from Margo. They are reunited in a refugee camp-type environment, where he works as a verification officer. They manage to escape together.
  • In his early 30s, he and Margo become the servants of a charismatic and corrupt political leader, Juliet. Soon after, he leaves Margo for good.
  • In his mid 30s, living in a small rural community, he is made the guardian of a troubled 14-year-old boy named Jeph. Feeling constrained by this environment, he soon escapes, leaving Jeph to fend for himself.
  • In his late 30s, he is ‘elected’ to a provisional government, established to restore order after the wave of disasters in previous chapters.
  • Finally, aged about 40, stricken with skin cancer, he reunites with his estranged father to die – or perhaps to be cured.

Character Map.PNG

Things We Didn't See Coming - Characters list

The protagonist: The male narrator is around 10 when the book begins, and around 40 when it finishes. We see the entire world through his eyes. Although he is not a particularly charismatic character, the protagonist possesses an integrity that many around him lack. Most of the time, he does what he can to help others – a trait that makes him better than many of the people around him.

The father (Otis): A rather ambiguous character, Otis is the ‘prophet’ of the story. He predicts the Y2K disaster, and tries in vain to prepare his family for the worst. Then, during a long period apart from his son, he establishes himself as an exile from the rest of society. The two finally reunite in the final story, when the narrator is terminally ill.

The mother (Cate): Although the narrator’s mother is only featured in the first story, she is shown to be a loving mother who does not fully understand the significance of what is happening. The narrator lives with her for some years after the first story takes place, before she moves to a desert town and trains to be a servant (p.113). She dies sometime between Uses for Vinegar and The Forest for the Trees.

The Grandparents: The protagonist’s grandfather and grandmother represent old-fashioned values, which are sorely lacking in the rest of the novel. Although they are fundamentally decent people, the couple is utterly unequipped to cope with the challenges of the harsh new world they find themselves in. After a delusional flirtation with freedom in The Theft That Got Me Here, the grandfather tragically chooses to end both of their lives.

Liz and Jenna: The protagonist finds Liz and Jenna, a mother and daughter, in an old farmhouse, and unsuccessfully attempts to evacuate them. Although they are filthy and starving, they demonstrate a fierce protective instinct toward each other: the narrator’s attempt to convince the daughter to leave with him is unsuccessful. Eventually, they make an attempt on his life.

Margo: The protagonist’s lover and main source of inspiration for much of the narrative, Margo is presented as an unworthy object of his love. Unlike the narrator, she is self-centred and pleasure-seeking. The two separate after Margo befriends Juliet.

Juliet: A rich and unscrupulous politician, Juliet is blatantly uninterested in the welfare of her supporters. She befriends the narrator and Margo, turning them into pawns in her hedonistic game.

Jeph: A teenage boy, whom the narrator is assigned to care for. Although Jeph is impolite and arrogant at times, he also shares some of the narrator’s positive qualities, such as compassion and loyalty.

Karuna: The superficially kind and attractive Karuna is actually a deceptive character who attempts to catch the narrator out in a lie. However, despite the fact that her job as an interviewer for the provisional government requires her to lie and act somewhat abruptly, she is nevertheless relatively appealing.

Things We Didn't See Coming - Style & Structure

In "Things We Didn't See Coming‟ Amsterdam's speech/ writing style shapes our reading and interpretation of the novel.
  • Minimalist writing & prose
  • Unnamed narrator
  • Understatement
  • Lack of specifics

How it affects the reader
  • Ambiguous
  • We fill in the details so it creates suspense and stirs our imagination
  • Focuses the reader on the narrative
  • We give our own character to the boy/teenage/man
  • A sense of uneasiness

Novel in Stories
  • Each section has its own atmosphere time, place.
  • Space for readers to fill in discontinuous narrative
  • Each story can be self contained
  • Tightly written
  • FOCUSED writing
  • Draws the reader in
  • Stimulates the reader
  • Each story ends with a cliff hanger

Things We Didn't See Coming - Themes

The future - speculation
- A dystopian nightmare
- Constant loss of homes and whole lives
- Government control - corruption

Worry and Fear
- We need a balance between worrying about the future and not worrying.
- Are we prepared or are we in denial?
- We are in the first story with the y2k phenomenon - panic for nothing.
- Clearly other things really were disastrous.

Our Environment
- Our abuse has to catch up with as we are all connected.
- We are never given specific details about the catastrophes but we understand them so we worry.

- Change is inevitable.
- Life is becoming more fragmented and less stable - almost episodic.

- People do what they have to do to survive.
- Narrator is a hero of survival.
- Steal, trade, manipulate, and protect themselves from disease all to survive

Keeps us going…
- relationships keep the narrator hopeful.

Things We Didn't See Coming - Setting Quotes

The following quotes all refer to the environment and setting, add your own comments and notes next to each quote
1. “Dry decaying suburbs, nothing of value left…” P32
2. “They must have had rain yesterday because when the sun finally comes through, the air gets all syrupy.” P34
3. “My mother keeps some basil on the kitchen ledge, but it never tastes right.” P40
4. “The grass or whatever was here before has been stripped by a thousand new rivers coming down from the top of the mountain.” P48
5. “Brownlee was clearly never much of a city, and it hasn‟t been pushed up the most lovable list with this recent incident, (deep ground oil drilling, at the centre of town, compromised fault line, no rain in fourteen months, ignition.)” P85
6. "Fascistically manicured lawn‟p143

Things We Didn't See Coming - Questions

What We Know Now
1. Paraphrase from p. 21 'Eventually. I'm not just concerned about tonight...' to the bottom of p. 22 'I'm sorry...'.
2. What does dad think about the state of the world and the Human race? Why?
3. What sort of 'break-downs' and disasters do you think Dad is imagining?
4. How would you answer the narrator's question: 'How should I prepare for that?'
5. What is dad sorry for?

The Theft That Got Me Here
1. Describe the differences between urban and rural life.
2. Find three quotes that suggest a break-down of society.
3. Describe the narrator's personality, supporting your description with evidence (quotes and actions).

Dry Land
1. Describe the changes that have occured since 'The Theft That Got Me Here'. Consider changes in the environment, government, health and characters. Support your response with evidence.
2. Describe how the characters; Gradnpa, the narrator, Liz and Jenna, 'cope' with the situations they find themselves in. Support your response with evidence.

Before reading:
1. What does ‘cakewalk’ mean?
2. What is ‘Eden’?
After reading:
1. Briefly describe the situation in Cakewalk, supporting your response with evidence.
2. Describe Margo. Support your response with evidence.
3. Describe the relationship between Margo and the narrator. Support your response with evidence.
4. Describe how and why the narrator’s outlook has changed since Dry Land. Support your response with evidence.

Uses for Vinegar
1. Briefly describe the situation in Uses for Vinegar, supporting your response with evidence.
2. Describe how the narrator’s mindset has changed since the previous chapters, supporting your response with evidence. Pay particular attention from the bottom of p.90 ‘And this is exactly the kind of cohort....’ to the middle of p.91 ‘...anything more than an oil well.’
3. Describe the changes in the relationship between Margo and the narrator, supporting your response with evidence.

The Forest For the Trees
1. Describe Juliet and her popularity. Use evidence.
2. Describe the relationship between Juliet, Margo and the narrator. Use evidence.
3. What are the benefits of the narrator’s plan for him, Margo and Juliet?
4. How and why do the narrator, Margo and Juliet use medications and drugs the way they do?
5. What happened to Cate, the narrator’s mother?

1. Describe the ‘community’ the narrator is living in. Support your response with evidence.
2. Describe Jeph. Support your response with evidence.
3. How has the use of medications and drugs changed since the last chapter? Support your response with evidence.
4. Describe the narrator’s state of physical and mental health. Support your response with evidence.

The Profit Motive
1. Describe the political climate. Support your response with evidence
2. To what extent do you agree with Francis’ assessment of the narrator? ‘You have consistently, when practicable, worked for your living, in both urban and rural adapted to...catastrophic changes in your immediate have generally maintained your hopeful outlook and your health. You have managed to survive without excessive theft. You have exhibited a range of genuine honesty, kindness, and patience...’ p.156 Support your response with evidence.

Best Medicine

Extension and Personal Questions
1. Where, if anywhere, do you see hope in this book?
2. How plausible did you find the book?
3. How did your opinion change as you were reading the book?