Living in a devastated world

This collection of stories imagines a lifetime of struggle and adaptation after the apocalypse

CorrespondentFebruary 14, 2010 

  • Steven Amsterdam

    Pantheon Books, 208 pages

Much post-apocalyptic literature begins when a catastrophic event - plague, nuclear holocaust - destroys civilization, leaving people scattered, leaderless, wandering aimlessly to fend for themselves amidst the ravages of destruction and human greed. Usually a sympathetic character or two struggles against new barbarians.

In Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," a father and son hide, scavenge and fight to survive as they journey to find others who retained some semblance of compassion. As well-crafted as McCarthy's novel is, Steven Amsterdam's brilliant novelistic collection of stories, "Things We Didn't See Coming," is an even better post-apocalyptic book than McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. McCarthy is a superior stylist, but Amsterdam's vision makes more sense.

Amsterdam recognizes that governments, even ones devastated and half-functioning, will survive, and people will still look to elected officials for help. He realizes that the individual will seek to create personal order. The dance of citizen and country will be reformed, with new steps improvised as they go along. Significantly, Amsterdam realizes the changes will play out over time. His book unwinds over half a century, exploring the changing consequences of and responses to global disaster through the aging circumstances of his narrator.

Set in the immediate future, in a country vaguely reminiscent of Amsterdam's home country, Australia, the book begins on the eve of the past millennium, with a 9-year-old boy being driven to his grandparents' home in the country. The boy's father believes in the Y2K threat.

Everyone scoffs at this, except the boy, who sits alone with his father in the woods at midnight. "In our time, in your time, there'll be breakdowns that can't be fixed," the father says, spinning a vision involving hospitals full of sick people, loss of water and electricity. When the son asks, "How do I get ready for that?" the father stops, hugs his boy, and chants, "I'm sorry." There will be no end to disasters - viruses, toxic rains, social collapse. And there will be no way to prepare. The boy will have to learn on his own to continually adapt to each new crisis, or die.

On his own

The second story opens fives years later, with the boy, now 14, living in the urban area with his grandparents, who decide they are going to sneak through the government barricades to the rural area. They make the boy use his experience as a thief to steal a car for their journey. Soon they are cruising the rural area, stealing food and water, hoping they can be reclassified, allowed to stay. Shockingly, the grandparents tell the boy they are going to part ways with him, he's on his own.

Something unexpected disrupts their plans and the boy's life is forever changed. He spins solo into a world of pestilence, disease, corruption - and begins to learn how to survive, physically and emotionally.

"Things We Didn't See Coming" shows how people, and their government, adapt to a devastated world. Amsterdam recognizes there would be more than one crisis to overcome. Pandemic viruses, ecological disasters, breakdowns of law, changing regulations all combine to create a future of chaos in which rules are ordered haphazardly.

The narrator does what he must. He works for the government, removing squatters from houses about to be flooded out; he legally embezzles for the state; he runs adventure trips for the terminally ill to see forbidden territories that are toxic. At one point he flees from the authorities who will arrest him for his thieving.

Later, his experience stands him in good stead for a government job. "You have managed to survive without excessive theft," an interviewer tells him approvingly. His value was that he learned how to survive.

As much grace as he can

The voice in these interconnected stories is thoughtful, intelligent, savvy but not hard-boiled. He is concerned about his own survival, yet struggles with how he can help others. He adapts to difficult situations with as much grace as he can, given the extremities of his new life, the lack of models to follow.

Unlike most post-apocalyptic fiction, the secondary characters in this book are fully developed. The girlfriend who is totally committed when they're together, but has to adapt for her own survival when they're apart. The woman who seems to be seducing the narrator, only to attack him because she mistakenly assumes he's after her child. The dying man, spewing blood, who doesn't care if he infects the narrator, because he needs someone to talk to.

Amsterdam has written a literary novel, in the form of a collection of stories about a post-apocalyptic future, that deals with how, and why, people survive the most extreme traumas. It is full of horror and hope and compels you to think about what if...what if this happened to you? How would you survive?

Richard Krawiec is a writer and editor who lives in Raleigh.

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