Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley – Book Review [Bellarius]
Returning to the world of video game tie-ins, Bellarius gives a few thoughts on Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley.
“A reasonable effort, but certainly not nearly as deep as many would have wanted.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Upon its initial release, a few reviewers not starstruck by Bioshock’s grim atmosphere and complex themes were quick to point out one thing: The mechanics were terrible. While the came could stand up on its own, the gunplay and many of the core elements surrounding how the player interacted with the world were fairly bare basic, leading to a few criticisms that it was better suited as a book than a video game. With that in mind, John Shirley’s prequel is one of the best arguments both for and against this point.
Set several years prior to a plane crashing near a lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic, Andrew Ryan is a man with a dream. Watching the first opening strikes of the Cold War and the building political conflict, jaded by false promises and ideas, he sets out for a grand scheme. His plan? Build a new society, a hidden society, one which can hide away from the world and surviving the impending nuclear Apocalypse, one which is based upon his ideals of self-determination. Yet, even as they close themselves off from the world, cracks are appearing in Ryan’s plan and they will soon find that his perfect world can be a greater dystopia than anyone had ever imagined…
Writing any kind of video game tie-in material is always a challenge, especially when the material is so heavily tied to a story driven game like Bioshock. The characters are already all in place, the stages set, you need to follow through with certain events, cover for aspects the game’s writers missed, yet at the same time remain true to their vision and offer something new for readers to enjoy. It’s one of the reasons that Halo, above all others, has been one of the bigger success stories thanks to having a full universe rather than a single location and protagonist. With all this said, it’s a testament to Shirley’s skills as a writer that he can take all of these varied elements and turn them into an engaging tale. Beyond even this though, he does so while at the same time offering almost every single character a unique voice and memorable role, despite the vast number of viewpoint figures he needs to jump between.
The story itself is told from the very start, and while it uses several characters to help shape the world, primarily focuses upon Bill McDonagh as the audience surrogate. Close enough to Ryan’s views to be trusted but sane enough to see where things are going wrong, the story uses him to see Rapture’s internal decay and slow death, from its shining start to deep dystopian slump. He remains one of the few truly likable figures throughout the tale even as the city itself devolves into insanity, and thanks to this the writing can fully embrace how depraved so many of its populace become. Between Atlas, Ryan and the demented splicers, the book could have easily devolved into a war where you wanted no side to win, yet presenting this small beacon of hope manages to keep the book engaging. It also helps that the characters themselves remain very true to their video game selves, even if some of their meaning to the original narrative doesn’t translate too well.
The book’s pacing is extremely methodical throughout, never rapid or overblown, but with a constant sense of purpose. Staging out things event by event, we gradually see how the city is founded and some of the methods used, offering the reader just enough information about Raputure’s origins to keep them interested without denying the city itself. The book also doesn’t make the mistake of engaging in rampant violence throughout, and it’s some way in before there’s a true fight. The actual battles themselves are more told to the audience than depicted in full blown gun porn, with much of the drive instead focusing upon the character dynamics, ideological conflict and the death of a dream. It’s not averse to violence, but it only uses it when necessary to the story and uses drama to keep the reader fully invested.
The unfortunate thing however is that while the story manages to juggle so many events extremely well, others are lost entirely. Chief among these is thanks to Shirley being an author who doesn’t fully revel in his environments. Despite focusing upon an undersea art deco city, none of the atmosphere so prevalent in the games is ever evident and the sense of horrifying wonder is quickly lost. In addition to this, the events themselves spiral out of control far too rapidly. The second that ADAM is discovered and people start to use it, they more or less immediately become splicers. This completely contradicts how the gradual addiction led to the city’s demise, and undermines the themes in how the city ultimately ignored its own problems by trying to focus upon individual self-worth. This is not to mention the big issue of effectively ignoring much of Bioshock 2 despite the presence of the main villain.
A further flaw impacts the character dynamics of the novel and sadly undermines its greatest strength as a result. The problem with so many of the characters being developed in the original game via audio diaries and logs means that we only saw fragments of them, enough for a somewhat clear image but only made complex by our own imaginings of what we failed to see. Here however, with so many characters directly in your face, that quickly falls to pieces. Ryan in particular is a victim of this, as while he is convincing as an extremist unwilling to compromise, the perpetual spouting of some very textbook objectivist views quickly becomes tedious. This is hardly helped when large sections of the tale also start quoting audio diaries line for line, hemming in certain characters and providing some rather unconvincing twists in the narrative. This is particularly unconvincing in the case of Tenenbaum, who appears far more cartoonish than in the games and practically pulls a complete character switch in a few paragraphs.
For all its problems though, Bioshock: Rapture is still entertaining if not memorable. This is most definitely one only for fans who have played the first game or possibly, despite said retcon, Bioshock 2 as it simply doesn’t do enough to introduce new readers. It expands upon the lore a little while filling in a few blanks and offering some good moments here and there in terms of character interaction, humour, drama and action. It’s certainly not the book it could have been, but it’s hard to complain about an author doing a reasonable job with a difficult task. Look this one up if you’re already familiar with Rapture’s ins and outs.