Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Steven Amsterdam, Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009)

The American-born Australian writer Steven Amsterdam’s themed short story collection Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) is about how the prophets of doom could be right and we ignore them at our own peril.  The title of the short story collection ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ has an ironic I-told-you-so quality that conveys that those who warn others of imminent disasters may be right, and when the disasters come, then those who were complacent or sceptics cannot say they were not warned or that they did not see the early signs.  

In this context, the short story collection features a protest against not doing enough to combat man-made climate change.  The book was written at a time when environmental campaigns had great momentum and were putting the notion of man-made climate change and potential ecological collapse high on the public agenda.  This put the economic reliance on fossil fuels, as well as the suburban lifestyle and the prevalent culture of materialism and consumerism, in the firing line.

This political trend was complemented by a literary trend that saw an increase in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that featured hypothetical doomsday scenarios involving the supposed consequences of trends evident in Western civilisation that were of great concern to many of those on the Left, which included the prospects of man-made climate change and ecological collapse. Amsterdam’s book is part of that literary trend.   

However, there is little in the short story collection detailing or directly explaining the causes of climate change or the other disasters depicted.  The book seems to be written in the expectation that the audience is sufficiently familiar with these issues and does not need them explained.  Therefore, Amsterdam’s protest regarding these matters is made mostly by inference.

These disasters provide the background for the narrative that runs through the nine short stories involving the personal problems of an unnamed main protagonist who is aged about ten in the first story and about forty in the final story.  The short stories proceed chronologically, beginning late in 1999 and concluding around 2030.  Amsterdam presents the scenario that in the midst of an ecological disaster, and other catastrophes, people will still worry about all the usual things that people worry about, such as relationship issues involving breaking up or getting back together.  

The onset of cataclysmic climate change and ecological collapse is felt from the second short story onwards, with environmental conditions steadily worsening as the narrative progresses.  The short stories refer to heavy floods, prolonged droughts and increased temperatures that damage or destroy most agriculture, industry and urban settlement. These changed environmental conditions also include cancer-causing ozone layer depletion (which eventually kills the main protagonist), natural resource and energy depletion, forest fires, new plagues of stinging insects and epidemics of deadly diseases.   Half of humanity is wiped out. 

This ecological collapse can be seen as leading to a collapse of Western civilisation, including liberal democracy, human rights, and the widespread affluence that many people took for granted.  In the new conditions, these dimensions of society became unsustainable.  One drastic situation that emerges is a widespread breakdown of law and order.  A situation of anarchy, a war of all against all, prevails in many places that forces people to steal to survive and to fight each other for scarce food, shelter and other vital resources.   What was mainstream morality at the time the author wrote (such as opposition to stealing) is challenged and subverted in the not-too-distant future by presenting people with new, harsh realities that they must overcome or perish. People have to survive in conditions of extreme scarcity and potential violence. This forces the main protagonist to become a thief, and to continually struggle with his conscience as a consequence.  The short story collection speaks of the difficulty in a post-apocalyptic society of maintaining what were once understood to be universal principles of moral decency. 

The short story collection posits that liberal democracy will not survive. Instead, the conditions of ecological collapse and scarcity will see the emergence of oppressive authoritarian regimes that oppress the powerless.  The gap between the rich minority and the poor majority will widen drastically, and so will the gap between the ruling elites and the majority.  A sharp divide will also emerge between the city dwellers and the country dwellers who produce the food.  Urban living will become so difficult that the suburbs of the urban sprawl, which were once the epitome of civilised comfort (and which were often derided by environmentalists), will become wastelands.  There will be a revival of small rural settlements and a revival of formerly marginalised or almost defunct skills involved in camping, bushcraft, hunting and gathering.  Currencies will virtually collapse and bartering will return.  In a society characterised by a divide between the oppressors and the oppressed, it will become advantageous to work for the government.  The main protagonist gets a series of government jobs that enable him to survive or even thrive at times.  He usually works enforcing the harsh decrees of the ruling elites. 

The author also speculates that this newly emerged authoritarian regime will operate a kind of police state.  Because socio-economic inequality will be dramatically magnified, the future will see a corrupt elite living in comfortable secure gated communities and enjoying luxuries unavailable to the vast majority while most people will have to endure wretched lives of deprivation, desperation and uncertainty. 

In these many ways, the author presents the costs of ignoring the warnings regarding increased man-made climate change and the potential for ecological collapse as too dear to risk. 

However, the author also uses his futuristic scenario to proclaim the triumph of progressive attitudes with which he would agree.  He suggests that feminism will triumph, and gay, lesbian, bisexual people and same-sex attraction will be more accepted. The short story collection consistently presents women (instead of men) in positions of political and bureaucratic authority and the collection presents women as dominant in heterosexual relationships. The short story collection also presents same-sex attraction and bisexuality as uncontroversial dimensions of mainstream sexuality.  Amsterdam also puts the case that there will be far less prudishness regarding the expectations of the public regarding the sexual behaviour of politicians.  He does this by depicting a senior politician, a senator who is a woman, and who is openly bisexual and sexually adventurous, as comfortably confident that her hedonistic predilections present no cost to her political career.   

The author also presents what he would probably regard as positive consequences of the disaster, which is that some people will form small communities that operate according to socialist principles, especially the principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. According to the author, socialism will provide a modest and decent (although closely regulated) existence for everyone involved.  In addition, the ecological collapse is also presented as providing the opportunity to rebuild society according to more ecologically sustainable principles. This involves a rejection of cites and suburbia, to instead preserve vast green spaces of forests and farmlands, with people living in small rural communities close to nature.  

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2022 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Things We Didn’t See Coming meaning, Things We Didn’t See Coming themes, Things We Didn’t See Coming analysis, Things We Didn’t See Coming notes