Paul Di Filippo Reviews Underneath the Oversea by Marc Laidlaw

Underneath the Oversea, Marc Laidlaw (Free­style, $6.99, eb) October 2020.

Here’s an experiment I wish I could con­duct. I would strip all identifying data from Marc Laidlaw’s new fantasy novel, Underneath the Oversea, and then hand the raw text to a number of savvy lovers of fantastika. I’m willing to bet that many of them would react by saying something along these lines: “Wow! This must be some classic 20th-century unknown fantasy, newly discovered. Or possibly I am read­ing a Lin-Carter-selected entry in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series that I’ve overlooked up till now. It’s timeless and old school, moving at a non-frenetic pace, yet curiously full of contemporary relevance and excitement. It’s not marked by the frantic overachieving of modern genre world­building, yet it’s still rich and dense. It obviously predates the commodification of fantasy and the splintering of that genre into many niches. It’s not Tolkienesque or paranormal, urban or grimdark. It’s simply… echt fantasy, like Dunsany or Mir­rlees, de Camp & Pratt or Hannes Bok. It’s some kind of Platonic ideal. I wonder if the mysterious author ever did anything else along these lines?”

Well, as we here know from the outset, Marc Laidlaw has not been categorized prior to this as a fantasy novelist. Anointed by his inclusion in Mirrorshades as one of the first-generation cyberpunks, Laidlaw gave us hard-edged satirical SF like Dad’s Nuke and Kalifornia, as well as the horror-tinged The 37th Mandala. Then, at the top of his game, because he had a family to sup­port, he more or less abandoned penury-inducing novel-writing to work in the videogame industry, helping to craft the famous Half-Life franchise. Upon his retirement in 2016, though, he returned to fiction in a bold and vigorous manner, produc­ing a series of humorous cyberpunkish tales with Rudy Rucker – the “Delbert and Zep” series – and also a handful of stories involving the adventures of a fantastical bard named Gorlen Vizenfirth, living in a marvelous world not ours.

Underneath the Oversea proves to be the newest exploits of Vizenfirth and the motley crew he calls family, but no familiarity with the foregoing tales is necessary to enjoy this book. And enjoy it you surely will! Laidlaw’s tone and his whimsical, low-key yet alluring inventiveness have a light, eternally fresh style, not anchored to any one era. Yet the whole subtextual theme of a blended family is pure 21st-century topical material, natural and not hammered home. Laid­law gets us acquainted with his cast in a leisurely manner – they are just going about their daily lives when we first encounter them – until the moment when all chaos breaks loose.

The entire ocean adjacent to the family’s acreage is lifted straight up into the sky, revealing the naked seafloor in all its strange topography and contents. At the same time, the piece of land on which the family lives reveals itself to be a buried stone giant, which extricates itself and sets out on a walk across the mucky seabed. The walking giant still bears daughter Aiku and the tree members on its pate, while Gorlen, Plenth, and Spar are left behind.

What ensues is the quest of the family to reunite, and the search for who has lifted the sea and why. The latter perp is a wizard named Mazmere Cazen­dell, a greedy fellow who has enslaved all his peers and is on a quest to uncover the powers of formerly drowned Mount Nightenglass and its lone slumber­ing inhabitant.

Numerous vividly sketched new characters enter at appropriate junctures, including Mazmere’s put-upon assistant, Noint; Captain Tatts, of the Mudscupper; and, most crucially, Sir Pet, a little animated poppet of threads and fabric in the shape of a bird, with a single button eye. (This creation im­mediately put me in mind of Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey, and indeed Millionaire, with his meticulous old-fashioned yet transgressive style, would be the perfect illustrator for this novel.)

There are constant surprises, cliffhangers, reveals, and moving sentimental epiphanies throughout these adventures, and at times a Vancian flair for dialogue. Laidlaw splits up his narrative focus among Maz­mere, Sir Pet, Gorlen & Co., and Aiku for a pleasant variety of perspectives.

And here’s one last outstanding accomplishment, reflecting Laidlaw’s stefnal nature and proclivities. He chronicles the rising of the ocean, the nature of an aerial suspended body of water, and the strange environment of the bare sea floor as if they were a Big Dumb Object, or alien world. In other words, he invents and conveys – by deft descriptions and metaphors – the tangible physics and impacts of these phenomena like Stephen Baxter giving us Raft or Larry Niven giving us The Integral Trees or Karl Schroeder giving us Ventus, and yet the result is not sheer mechanics, but marvelous fantasy.

About the only recent fellow-traveler fit to consort with these books that I can adduce would be the Balumnia Trilogy by James P. Blaylock: The Elfin Ship, The Disappearing Dwarf, and The Stone Giant. The pristine, primal spirit of fancifulness that does not obey the dictates of marketplace or literary fashions is shared by both Laidlaw and Blaylock.

If you are craving a book that will transport you “beyond the fields we know,” then Underneath the Oversea is your magic striding giant or floating barquentine.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.

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