Tuesday 19 July 2011

Book Review | Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley

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It's the end of World War II. FDR's New Deal has redefined American politics. Taxes are at an all-time high. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has brought a fear of total annihilation. The rise of secret government agencies and sanctions on business has many watching their backs. America's sense of freedom is diminishing... and many are desperate to take there freedom back.

Among them is a great dreamer, an immigrant who pulled himself from the depths of poverty to become one of the wealthiest and admired men in the world. That man is Andrew Ryan, and he believed that great men and women deserve better. And so he set out to create the impossible, a utopia free from government, censorship, and moral restrictions on science -- where what you give is what you get. He created Rapture: the shining city below the sea.

But as we all know, this utopia suffered a great tragedy. This is the story of how it all came to be... and how it all ended.


Whether or not you play video games, you'll have heard of Bioshock, I bet. Somebody, at some point, simply must have told you all about Rapture, the great city under the sea which rose to impossible heights in the thrifty 50s before falling to cataclysmic lows only a few years later. This is that story.

Perhaps you know about Little Sisters and Big Daddies, too: the creepy, dead-eyed little girls with their syringes for extracting ADAM from bodies littered about the city, and the behemothic monsters clad in old-school diving suits who kept them company wherever they went. Certainly they proved an iconic pairing; in fact, I have a figurine of one of the latter on my mantelpiece.

But then, I would, because I loved Bioshock.

Is it the best game of all time? I don't know... I haven't played every last one, have I? But I'll say this, in no uncertain terms: the most meaningful experience I've ever had with a console controller in hand, I had while playing Bioshock. So I come to Bioshock: Rapture with great expectations. Yet hand in hand with every expectation, I bring an equal and opposite sense of trepidation, in part as a result of lessons learnt from Bioshock 2 -- a perfectly adequate sequel to the original ground-breaking game which nevertheless demonstrated that more of the same good thing isn't always a good thing. Bioshock 2 asked if lightning could strike twice. Turned out... not so much.

Maybe the third time's the charm, then?

Assuredly, with Bioshock: Rapture in the capable hands of Bram Stoker Award-winning genre author John Shirley, who previously novelised the silver screen adaptation of the comic book Constantine, there's every reason to think so. And Bioshock: Rapture begins very much in that mode. In an exceedingly smart move - the first of several testaments to the author's understanding of the craft (if not the art) of cross-media storytelling - Shirley opts not to retell the tale of the video game, of a city under the sea already in ruins, but rather expand upon than pre-history alluded to throughout Irrational's masterpiece, of Rapture's incredible rise.

"At first it was an experiment. Little more than a hypothesis - a game. I already have the drawings for a smaller version - but it could be bigger. Much bigger! It is the solution to a gigantic problem..." (p.15)

Shirley's wisdom is also evident in his decision to place the burden of this narrative on the shoulders of a lesser-known figure from the Bioshock mythos: rather than the lunatic visionary Andrew Ryan or his entrepreneurial adversary Frank Fontaine, or even Jack - the player character in the game proper - Shirley selects handyman Bill McDonagh as protagonist of Bioshock: Rapture. A down-on-his-luck plumber when we meet him, McDonagh is instrumental in the events leading up to the experiment's untimely conclusion, yet only a tertiary figure in the narrative as it has been established. Seeing in him a certain shared spirit, Andrew Ryan raises McDonagh up and up so that he becomes the practical mind behind the undersea city that is his dizzying dream. 

Bill McDonagh essentially becomes Ryan's conscience: he helps Rapture's own God among men see reason when his ideas and ideals threaten to bring this wondrous new world of their creation down around them; he acts as a go-between for Ryan and Fontaine (of Fisheries and Futuristics fame); and when it turns out that "Not everyone can start their own business. And if they do, who'll clean the toilets?" (p.265) and Ryan promptly leaps off the deep end, it is McDonagh who tries to bring him back down to earth. But as with Rapture, McDonagh's rises comes at a grave cost.

In fact - spoilers off the starboard bow! - Bill McDonagh dies at the end.

Come to that, McDonagh is dead and buried (though I suppose I would not swear to that latter) well before the events the first game chronicles have even begun. If you played Bioshock back in the day, you'll know that. If not... shame on you! What are you even thinking, reading this when there's a perfectly incredible game ready and willing to change the way you play?

In any event, I'm not merely being mean-spirited, because the tension in this novel is not so much whether or not our man might make it as it is exactly how he doesn't. To wit, Bioshock: Rapture is in every sense a book about the journey rather than the destination. As McDonagh muses, "He had helped build something glorious, something unprecedented. Sure, Rapture was untried, was a glaringly new idea. A gigantic experiment. But they'd planned Rapture down to the last detail. How badly could it go wrong?" (p.123) A line of questioning to which, per my reading of Shirley's value-added narrative, I would also ask: how did this great city, and these basically decent people, fall so far? So far and so fast and so hard?

In that sense, Bioshock: Rapture is a rip-roaring success. It offers one last glimpse at an endlessly fascinating place in time, and provides neat insight into the minds of the men and women - great and small - behind it. It is too as authentic a piece of work as one could have hoped for; those non-canonical words and speeches Shirley has Andrew Ryan, for instance, ventriloquise, are perfectly in line with the character's voice and philosophy. Take the following nugget of wonderment:

"I've always had a fascination with the deep sea. It's another world - a free world! For years I read of giant squid netted from the depths, the adventures of explorers in diving bells and bathyspheres, strange things sighted by submariners. The thrilling potential of it all!" (p.97)

Or this patented Andrew Ryan wisdom: "A man must make of his life a ladder that he never ceases to climb - if you're not rising, you're slipping down the rungs, my friend." (p.33) Bioshock: Rapture is absolutely in line with the the world and the characters of Bioshock proper; indeed, it seamlessly incorporates certain elements of the sequel, too. And the notion that there is more to know about Ryan's Rapture proves in the final summation the most attractive aspect of Shirley's novel. 

Want to hear why all the Little Sisters look alike? John Shirley's got you covered. How about why there are tommy guns and grenade launchers leaning against every surface, or how Plasmids came to be dispensed from vending machines, or why what seems sometimes the entire population of Rapture started documenting random episodes of their day-to-day lives on audio logs? If you answered yes, gather round and listen, because Bioshock: Rapture has all that, and much more besides.

That being said, if you're after something more substantial - a satisfying narrative in its own right, for instance, or characters with anything but the broadest of arcs, or perhaps something approaching the same sense of untapped wonder that made Bioshock the first such an unforgettable experience - I dare say Bioshock: Rapture will disappoint. Shirley's slavish devotion to the demands of the narrative canon, such as it is, leaves precious little room for development along those lines, I'm afraid. But you can't have it both ways, and to a point, this way... this way worked for me.

In the end, the only real question one can ask is this: does Bioshock: Rapture sink, or does it swim? Well, strictly speaking, I'd have to admit it does neither, not quite... not right. But at least it floats. There's bloat in these here waters, alas, but also buoyancy, and I for one come away pleased to see there's this much life left in the old girl yet.


Bioshock: Rapture
by John Shirley

UK Publication: July 2011, Titan Books
US Publication: July 2011, Tor

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  1. I'm disappointed to hear it's not a powerful book in its own right, but I loved Bioshock enough that I might check it out anyway.

  2. As I did - and I don't regret it at all.

    Would have been nice if the book had been able to measure up against Bioshock itself better, but then if the actual sequel couldn't, despite all its neat twists and innovations - and they were that - then I don't suppose John Shirley, for all his talents, had much of a chance.

    Still. Fun in and around Fort Frolic! Who could complain? :)

  3. I disagree with your appraisal of Bioshock 2- I thought the story was well-told and the combat was much more exciting and dynamic. I felt lost in the first game some of the time, whereas the second lead me through the story, balancing highs and lows to achieve a good pacing. And it was certainly a very creative way to create the sense of emotional investment the first managed to achieve.

    I'm looking forward to reading Rapture. Your review suggests to me that I'll enjoy it greatly for the back-story to Bioshock's rapture I'm looking for.

    Great review :).