- Signs of the End
Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming follows an unnamed protagonist through nine vignettes, each with its own setting, plot, tone, and signs of the apocalypse. The novel begins on New Year's Eve 1999, with the narrator and his parents preparing to leave the city and (his father hopes) avoid the impending Y2K disaster. While it is never explicit what disaster takes place, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that some form of environmental devastation has occurred—if not as a result of Y2K (a false alarm that still portends problems to come), then from some similar demand of infrastructure and economy that humans are eventually unable to manage. From an expedition on a horse bred to withstand the harsh rainy season to a struggle for survival with his sometimes partner Margo in the badlands during a drought, the circumstances of the narrator and those around him exist in a state of flux. Through each vignette, the narrator remains the only consistent feature of the novel, while other characters, places, and events fade in and out of significance. Organized in this way, the novel registers a tension between the narrator and his disparate and changing surroundings. Since the narrative context changes so drastically in each vignette, there is no sustaining system of meaning to provide him purpose or motivation other than individual survival.
Massive destruction followed by the redemption of the survivors remains the standard narrative structure of post-apocalyptic fiction. Thing We Didn't See Coming registers an interesting shift away from other post-apocalyptic narratives in that it is structured around persistence. In the novel, the crisis of each chapter has its own weight and resonance, its own moment of destruction and redemption, and signifies in its own small way that something has passed away, while what replaces it remains unclear. Interestingly, many of the motivating crises of the novel closely reflect the crises of our own moment—peak oil, environmental catastrophe, global epidemics. But we do not see these things head on; the novel is focalized through the narrator, so we do not witness disaster unfolding from a god's-eye view as is so often the case in many apocalyptic forms. A good example of this is the flashy apocalyptic cinematography in Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). While the apocalyptic novel does tend to limit this type of indulgence, even in Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), we get a sense of the total devastation wreaked by the apocalyptic event. Because of this narrative closeness, Amsterdam's narrator is able to feel out one of the more typical elements of post-apocalyptic narratives—a clearing of space that opens up possibilities for a better future—by demonstrating in each chapter, albeit in different ways, that this desire for an easy or simple path after the apocalypse is an unwarranted expectation.
When the narrator identifies an ideological block in others, he inscribes his own. While working for a government relocation agency, he muses that these people cannot think beyond the immediate crisis: "they're laughing about their dumb luck for surviving. But they have this newborn worry in their faces. They may not know it yet: It's permanent." Here, two forms of survival and persistence are distinguished. There is the naïve belief that the current crisis is the only crisis, whether it's a fire, a flood, or a drought; once one crisis is resolved, those facing it will be able to start over. For instance, the narrator indulges his critical nature when talking about Grief programs: "The thought is nice: You'll have a clean slate, a world of opportunity, you'll never look back. But nothing really heals because, if you lose everything once, running becomes part of you and you're always looking back." Reflecting on this way of seeing things, the protagonist sees through this first, short-sighted version of survival to a time when survival becomes, in his words, "permanent." Here he perhaps unwittingly gives...