Marc Laidlaw’s “Underneath the Oversea”
A wondrous fairytale, wondrously read, from the storyteller of Half-Life.
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…