Book Reviews, Novels, Video Games

Game Write: Marc Laidlaw’s Kalifornia (1993)

Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we look at Marc Laidlaw’s 1993 sci-fi novel, Kalifornia — a quirky cyberpunk tale mixing humor and eastern mysticism into a typically-gruff genre.

Calafia was the first child born to wires.
And already she was a star.

Kalifornia‘s a fun, if dated, cyberpunk romp set in a nearby 2050 California. It mixes the usual cyberpunk tropes — the entire culture is hooked up via circa 1993 predictions of TV and PC technologies — with the counterculture philosophizing and bizarro humor of writer Marc Laidlaw. While Laidlaw’s prose fiction has largely flown under folks’ radars, he’s well-known for his involvement with Valve Software and their flagship series, Half-Life, from 1998 to his retirement in 2015. His work with Valve is frequently cited as setting the foundation for the complex video game narratives we get today, initiating a paradigm shift in the industry that said games could tell complex or exciting stories through the environment.

By Kalifornia‘s 2050, most first-world citizens are wired directly to TV — a very different TV than we have today. Viewers don’t just watch scripted performances on a flatscreen, they experience what the actors experience. Since all actors are hooked up to send and receive these signals, viewers can bounce around to whomever they wish and have whatever experience they wish, even off script, making for very public, very reality-TV lives for actors.

There are also human-animal hybrids walking Kalifornia‘s streets and contributing to the economy. Dog-men accompany cops or work their own beats; seal-men are butlers; etc. It’s a silly addition that adds some serious bizarro humor to the story.

Half-Life (1998) sported many easter eggs hinting at the developers and their external work early on. Here, Laidlaw’s name adorns a locker near protagonist Gordon Freedman’s.

Laidlaw’s novel opens during California’s bicentennial celebration. Wire-star Poppy Figueroa is in the middle of her greatest performance: The live-streaming birth of her daughter, Calafia — herself the first baby born to the wires. Calafia’s hooked up to the send / receive system from the womb, marking a next step for humankind’s collective experience. A conspiracy leads to Calafia’s immediate abduction by cult of Kali-worshiping crazies who live in the barren Holy Land of central California — effectively Mad Max territory by 2050 — and who give Calafia the more fitting name of the title: Kalifornia.

An entire nation, moving as one, could be turned against any enemy. They would be irresistible. Internal strife weakens and destroys armies and nations; but in such a group there would be no dissent, no resistance.

The cult around Kalifornia hopes to use her revolutionary wire-birth technology as a means of connecting the minds of senders and receivers beyond just passive experiences, but to the will of a singular entity. It’s all a bit mad, but I dig it. Poppy’s extended Figueroa family are a dysfunctional bunch, full of pedophilia, incest, the draw of stardom. The real stars of the novel are Poppy’s brother Sonny and his transgenic chauffeur-of-sorts Cornelius — a lovable seal! — on a quest to escape laziness and return Kalifornia to her family.

The hardback edition of Kalifornia features an image of the titular character as she appears in the story’s finale.

Wire stations’ effects on viewers are more akin to Rocko’s Modern Life commentary than anything, but Laidlaw’s ideas are also prescient in ways that predicted both the Survivor / Big Brother explosion, the Oculus Rift, and Twitch streaming as a profession.

Kalifornia is fun, for sure. It just leans more towards forgettable at times, and is hurt, I think, by shallow commentary on social issues (often involving the transgenics). Each of the book’s three parts sheds some of the aimlessness caused by the genre mashup, building up to a fantastic final act around the conspiracy’s push for a collective experience. It’s cool; it’s funny; I just don’t think the good ideas are used enough.

Kalifornia is available through Amazon as an affordable e-book.


Since retiring from Valve Software, Marc Laidlaw has republished nearly all of his novels and short stories as affordable e-books via Amazon. More information on his fiction can be found on his website. His fiction credits include Dad’s Nuke (1985), Neon Lotus (1988), Kalifornia (1993), the Orchid Eater (1994), the Third Force (1996), the 37th Mandala (1996), White Spawn (2015), and 400 Boys & 50 More (2016). With Valve Software, he served as lead writer for the Half-Life series (1998-2007), and Dota 2 (2013).

“Oy vey,” Reb said as they walked on. “You can’t tell this was ever America. Religious freedom went right out the window when no one was looking.”

“What about my freedom?” Sandy asked boldly.

Reb shrugged. “You should have held on to it tighter. Don’t worry, you’ll do all right. We have some good regular customers. Like the Church of Christ, Nuclear Scientist. They’re pretty interesting. Claim they can split the Holy Trinity to produce safe, clean energy efficiently. They need research subjects. You want to donate your immortal soul to a power company?”

“I’d rather keep it in one piece.”

“Maybe you’d make a good Ignostic. That’s the Siblings of the Otiose Order. They study all the things God can’t be bothered with. You could have a rewarding spiritual career counting balls of lint.”

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