Marc Laidlaw’s “Underneath the Oversea”

A wondrous fairytale, wondrously read, from the storyteller of Half-Life.

The cover of Skyboat Media’s audio edition of Underneath the Oversea.

I have been a Marc Laidlaw fan since his debut novel, Dad’s Nuke — an apocalyptic, madcap dark comedy/road-trip novel that anticipated Snow Crash and its motif of an America dominated by paranoid, fortresslike gated communities.

I avidly consumed all of his subsequent novels and short stories — especially “400 Boys,” his contribution to Bruce Sterling’s seminal cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades.

Then, one day, the stream of novels and stories dried up. I soon found out why: Laidlaw had gone to work for Valve, as the writer on Half-Life, staying on to co-write Portal and other games. I was more of a reader than a gamer, but I couldn’t really fault Laidlaw for his career switch — no one can deny the masterful storytelling in those titles, and they found an audience that was vastly larger than most novelists could dream of.

Then I invited Laidlaw to come and guest-lecture on games writing to my students at the Clarion West workshop in Seattle, and he blew my mind, articulating a theory of atmospheric, implicit storytelling that went on to inform the work I did at Walt Disney Imagineering. That lecture helped me make peace with the end of Laidlaw’s prose, because it was clear he had just as much to contribute to this other art-form.

Then…Laidlaw retired, and starting writing novels and short stories again — and what stories he wrote!

Laidlaw’s newer work conveys all that dense, implied lore that makes playing his games so great, along with a gamelike pace and rhythm, while revisiting that madcap invention and eschatology of his pre-Half-Life novels.

Now, Laidlaw has teamed up with Skyboat Media to produce audiobooks of these new books. The first one of these is Underneath the Oversea, a fairy-tale of levitating oceans, fateful toy birds, bardic parenting, and sorcerous villainy. Technically, Oversea is a sequel — it follows from the short story collection The Gargoyle’s Handbook, but it stands alone easily, and the stories in Handbook are in no way spoiled by reading (or listening to) Oversea first.

Oversea tells the story of the family of Gorlen Vizenfirthe, a bard who co-parents Aiku, a six-year-old girl whose other family are the bard Plenth, the gargoyle Spar, and a grove of sentient songwood trees. They all live together in a neat little cottage on a “headland” — a cliff-face that is really the tremendous head of a titanic Guardian, one of the ancient, magical beings who protects the sea.

One day while Aiku is at home with her tree-siblings and the adults have gone to the village for supplies, a great and terrifying thing occurs: the sea, the whole vast and entire sea, lifts off from the ground and takes to the sky, in a sloshing, gelatinous, blotting mass that hovers overhead, dragging ships at anchor through it and then out of it, to crash below, among the dying, thrashing animals of the seabed.

Amid panic, Gorlen, Spar and Plenth race back to the cabin, only to discover that the Guardian (on whose headland they left their cabin, songwoods, and daughter) has risen at last from the vast pit in which he has hibernated since time immemorial, and has struck off across the muddy seabed, hastening to some unknown battle, taking Aiku and the cabin and the songwoods with him, still fastened to the top of his head.

Thus begins a quest novel that sees the forces of good, the birds of the air, and the animals of the flying deeps all pitted against the evil wizard Mazmere Cazen­dell, who has tricked his fellow wizards into raising the sea so that he might unshackle sorcery from the ancient pact that reined in the terrifying ambition that inevitably accompanies mastery of the ancient mysteries.

On the way, we encounter a salty mud-ship captain, a mysterious sorceress, a living toy bird that is stuffed with fate itself, and a menagerie of Guardians, birds, and monsters. The storytelling is impeccable, straddling the line between singsong, dreamlike fantasy and high-stakes peril and daring action.

The audiobook is read by Skyboat’s Stefan Rudnicki, whose incredible baritone and superb acting skills make for a gripping performance (fans of my work may recognize Rudnicki’s voice from the audio adaptation of my novella “The Masque of the Red Death”).

As Paul Di Filippo noted in his Locus review of the print edition of Oversea, Laidlaw’s second coming began with a series of collaborations with a fellow madcap OG cyberpunk, Rudy Rucker, the American-Swiss physicist, mathematician and science fiction writer.

Oversea is dedicated to Rucker, and his fingerprints are all over the book, as are Jack Vance’s (Di Filippo also invokes Blaylock’s Elfin Ship, writing that the book’s, “pristine, primal spirit of fancifulness that does not obey the dictates of marketplace or literary fashions is shared by both Laidlaw and Blaylock”).

Oversea was created in the midst of calamity: Laidlaw wrote it while locked down for 14 months on the island of Kaui following 2018’s “rain bomb.” Perhaps that origin in suspended time explains the tale’s timeless magic, its Wizard of Oz road-trip quality that is at once dreamy and compelling.