BioShock: Rapture. A book review

It just occurred to me that I haven’t really seen any book reviews on this site, so I’m going to fix that right now. Before we talk about books, though, let’s talk about video games. More specifically, let’s talk about BioShock.

The BioShock series is a game I like to point to as a shining example of video games as a form of art, mostly because of how it pushed the boundaries of marrying game mechanics with narrative. Over the past few years, video games have proven to be just as affective a storytelling medium as books, movies and television before it. Obviously BioShock was far from the first to tell an engaging story since games have been doing this pretty much since the days of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, but in terms of making said story integral to the game itself, you’d be hard pressed to find an equal, which is why I think it’s the closest thing the medium has to classic literature. As you try to escape from the underwater city of Rapture, you also slowly unveil how exactly everything went to hell, and the details are chronicled in the prequel novel, BioShock: Rapture.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, billionaire Andrew Ryan is convinced that nuclear war is inevitable. Unable to trust either Roosevelt’s new policies or the looming spread of communism, he sets off to build Rapture, a secret society at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where a man owned only what he earned with the sweat of his own brow, and artists, scientists and businessmen could create, compete and experiment without any government regulation. The city thrives at first due to lack of restrictions leading to technological advancements years ahead of the time, but several factors come into play that ultimately lead to the city’s downfall. Civil unrest quickly becomes abundant, leading to class division between Rapture’s societal elite and the underclass workers that keep the city from flooding. Brigid Tenenbaum, a genetic scientist, discovers a substance called ADAM that alters DNA and grants people superpowers, but is highly addictive and drives people insane. Ryan’s position of power is then challenged by a smuggler named Frank Fontaine, who monopolizes on ADAM by funding Tenenbaum’s research, creating one of the most powerful industries in Rapture and turning half of its citizens into crazed “splicers”. This all escalates into a genetic arms races and eventually all out civil war between not just Ryan and Fontaine, but the city’s oppressed underclass, lead by the enigmatic Atlas.

Now those of you who played the first BioShock game probably think that a prequel novel would be pointless and redundant, and to an extent I understand where you’re coming from. One of the game’s strongest aspects is that the story slowly pulls back the curtain to reveal just what happened to this once great city. Most of the details are touched upon in various audio diaries littered about the place, but a good chunk of the story is told through the environment itself. Author John Shirley uses all of these tools to his advantage, going to painstaking lengths to stay true to the spirit of the game, but at the same time providing his own original spin. Most game based novels require prior knowledge to fully understand what’s going on, and while playing BioShock 1 and 2 prior makes for a richer reading experience, it’s not entirely necessary, and is one of the few in the genre where it could be enjoyed as a stand alone piece of work.

Having played the first BioShock game all the way through several times (BioShock 2 and Infinite are on my to do list), I already knew quite a bit going into this book, but at the same time was still intrigued to learn more. In the game, you learn a lot about Rapture’s history through audio diaries scattered throughout each level, giving information on various events from the perspective of everyone from the wealthy elite to the lowly workers struggling to keep by. Shirley uses these snippets of info as a main resource, and the book sheds some light on some of the more enigmatic recordings. Shirley also mixes in some of his own characters and plot lines into the mix as well, keeping a good balance of adaptation and originality. If you ever stop to wonder why you never came across any audio diaries from Ivan Karlosky, Constable Redgrave or Pat Cavendish, there’s a good reason for that.

The writing was simple enough to be easily digested, but informative enough to keep the reader’s interest. That’s not to say it was weak by any means. John Shirley can still paint a vivid picture, and his ability to juggle multiple storylines and character arcs while maintaining the spirit of the game is uncanny. Part 1, which deals in the events that lead to Ryan investing all his time and money into building Rapture, gets off to a bit of a clunky start. At the beginning, Shirley tended to over-describe everything and linger on minute details that didn’t really matter that much. But by the time Part 2 comes around, the author has kicked most of those habits and got the ball rolling at a more steady pace.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of multiple characters, some of which only got one, others getting their own story arcs. The game’s main cast all get their moment in the spotlight including Ryan, Fontaine, Tenenbaum, and Sander Cohen, Rapture’s star artiste and hands down the scariest character in the whole series. Even Sofia Lamb, the main antagonist in BioShock 2 who idealistically represents everything Ryan is against, waits in the shadows to build her own cult while Ryan and Fontaine wear each other out. Ryan himself is a magnificent, charismatic son of a bitch who would have the ambition to build a city under the sea, and is a complex character because of how idealistic and obsessive he is. But there are others who get a lot more focus in the books than they got in through their audio diaries. Some of the more prominent examples are Sullivan, Rapture’s chief of security, Diane McClintock, Ryan’s naïve, lonely mistress, and Bill McDonagh, who was promoted by Ryan from a mere plumber to Rapture’s head engineer. McDonagh in particular ends up becoming Rapture’s unsung hero, believing strongly in Ryan at first, but developing his own doubts as the situation in Rapture worsens. Most of these characters have their plots come full circle by the end, while others are merely there to either hint at things that happen in the games or expand on the Rapture lifestyle. Characters like Bill McDonagh and Sullivan have their story arcs wrapped up with a ribbon on top by the end, while some characters like Dr. Steinmann and Sander Cohen are only there to show us how certifiably insane they are (something anyone who played the first game for an hour would’ve known). Which is a shame because Sander Cohen, despite being an utter creep, is one of the most fascinating characters in the series, and I would’ve loved to see him get a little more depth. Even some of the major ones get cut a bit short. Tenenbaum in particular ends up going through one of the most dramatic character developments in the series despite only being seen a handful of times. I know there’s only so much you can stick into 430 pages, but there was still a bit to be desired.

The characters aren’t the only thing carried over from the games, however. Like I said before, I think that BioShock is probably the closest thing we have to a video game equivalent to classic literature, and a large chunk of that has to do with the argument that the story is basically an argument against Randian objectivism. I never read Atlas Shrugged, and from my incredibly basic understanding of it it seems rather unappealing (particularly how it glorifies selfishness), but I do know enough about it to understand the similar themes and parallels to Ayn Rand’s work. (Andrew Ryan is kind of an anagram of Ayn Rand, Atlas’s name came from her manifesto, and Atlas himself is basically John Galt with an Irish brogue.) But considering that the main antagonist of BioShock 2 was an altruist and she was just as bad as Ryan or Fontaine, I like to think the series’ overarching theme is the danger of adhering to just one philosophy or while demonizing others rather than just “objectivism is evil”. Ryan is a prime example, as his utter refusal to compromise his vision, valuing his philosophy more than the lives and safety of the thousands that look up to him, and determination to destroy his rivals at all costs are the fire that lights the powder keg. Building a whole society around his virtues of ruthless dog eat dog capitalism leaves the city ripe for exploitation by opportunistic crooks like Fontaine and a breeding ground for civil unrest and a saturated market. It paints a flawed picture of both the city and its founder, and how neither were both doomed to fail. Ryan was right about one thing: it wasn’t impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea, it was impossible to build it anywhere else.

All in all, BioShock: Rapture made for a better reading experience than I expected. Like I said, playing the first game before picking this up will help make a few things make more sense, but if you’re a fan of books like 1984 or Brave New World but want something that doesn’t feel like a word salad, then you could enjoy this book on its own merits. Whether or not you thoroughly listened to the audio diaries, this will help shed some light on Rapture’s enigmatic history, painting a bigger, broader picture. You can find it in paperback on Amazon for about $8, so go ahead and get yourself a copy, would you kindly?

– A slight observation: the novel was released in 2011, two years before BioShock: Infinite was released, but at one point we find out there’s a business in Rapture ran by a man named Comstock. Go figure.