BioShock: Rapture by John Shirley
Published by Titan Books
July 2011, Mass Market Paperback
BioShock: Rapture is the first novel based on the multi-million selling video game franchise BioShock, and was authored by John Shirley, a well-established genre author who won the Bram Stoker Award for his short story collection Black Butterflies. The series was well recieved by the gaming community, not for its visuals nor its gameplay, but for the brilliance of its writers in telling a story. The games released so far have revolved around the city of Rapture, a vast underwater community where man is free of the fetters of the modern world. In Rapture, scientists weren’t restricted by morality or ethics, the artists and writers had no censor to fear, and you could live your life as freely as you wish. Andrew Ryan, the initial antagonist of the series, first came to the attention of the player via a short movie in which he made criticisms on the various world governmental types, and from then on you were drawn into the city of dreams, which like all great utopia, had fallen. This book concentrates on the story of Rapture, and how it came into being, but also how it fell.
“Would you kindly get on with the review?” I hear you ask, and so I shall. BioShock: Rapture is everything it promises to be, and does so quite well. We start off in the years preceding the creation of Rapture, but after the devastating attacks of the US on Japan, and over three parts we watch Rapture go from an idea through to a decaying ruin. At the start of each chapter, the author notes the year, and sometimes month, in which those events happen, and it allows the reader to contextualise everything from the events of the surface world through to even the smallest cultural references, such as the mention of the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. We also see the city through the eyes of a number of characters and this gives us a very good view of what is happening to each of the major players of the series. All of these viewpoints are written in different styles relating to the character they follow. For example Bill, a working class plumber, has a ‘Scouser’ accent that comes through in his narration as well as his dialogue, whereas Andrew Ryan’s chapters are generally more formal.
As a tie-in novel, it’s aimed squarely at those who’ve played through the two games currently released. There are numerous references to characters, events, interactive objects (such as the vending machines) and places that you visit in the games, and they help immerse the reader, who will have walked down those very streets, met those very characters and witnessed the aftershocks of those events. I found myself grinning as I recognised allusions to aspects of the game, such as the first mention of Splicers, who are citizens who have heavily abused substances known as ‘plasmids’, which are a genetic enhancement to grant a certain power. These references give some context to the book and also to things the player will find in the games, such as the prevalence of New Year’s Day 1959 celebration posters found in the first game.
One of the more prevalent reference types extends to dialogue, which the player encounters in-game via tape recordings. Shirley, especially in the latter half, frequently had characters say things that were heard in the games, and I felt it worked very well because it deepened the meaning to what they were saying and, more importantly, why they said it.
However, the novel is not flawless by any means. John Shirley has an infuriating love of ellipses and hyphens, which he constantly uses and abuses, especially in dialogue. A conversation that could be flowing is often disrupted by the abundance of punctuation, and it can make speech hard to follow at times. The problem does extend to some sentences too, where commas appear in unnecessary places and served only to confuse me.
I also found that the dialogue was inconsistent with a number of the non-native English speaking characters, and they switch between full and halting English at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, Andrew Ryan uses contractions from time to time, which seems to go against his nature and the way he speaks. The overuse of certain phrases and terms extends frustratingly at one point to the phrase ‘black bastard’, which is used by a Russian character in reference to a black character.
Throughout the time I spent reading about this character, Shirley had constantly brought his race up as if it were of any real significance, although there is a moment near the end in which it does have a little bit of relevance. The reassurance of the character’s race does make me wonder if the author kept forgetting parts of the book, and it would explain a potentially bizarre paragraph in the first half. One of the characters is sat with another, and we’re told he’s sat in just his boxer shorts and a t-shirt. In one of the following sentences, the character reaches into his pocket and pulls out an object, which is odd as he’s not put any clothes on between the two events. I was left scratching my head in puzzlement as I tried to work out what had just happened.
As for the plots, I felt that the middle segment of the book held a lot of potential, but just as things seemed to get exciting for that particular viewpoint, the chapter would stop and move to another. This carried on through to the end of the book, so many chapters did feel as if they ended prematurely, and they took some potentially interesting scenes behind the curtains for little reason. In my research about this book, I’d read that it was intended to release a year or two ago, but was delayed to factor in the details from the second game, and it shows.
One of the major plots, which is strongly tied to the second game, abruptly stops and it never felt as if it had too much relevance to the story of the book. If it had been cut, I honestly think the book would not have suffered for it.
I feel I must also comment on the editing and typesetting of the book. It is fairly standard, in my limited experience, for Titan Books. I found that some paragraphs were badly formatted, there were a number of random capitalisations and grammatical errors, and it gave the book a very poorly edited feel. If someone had read some sort of proof copy of this book, then they would have noticed these issues and hopefully corrected them. I found such errors did crop up in Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series, and I must say I’m disappointed to find them in another Titan publication. Whilst it isn’t the author’s fault as such, I think it’s still a point that should be raised.
Overall, I felt BioShock: Rapture was a steady, but flawed, read. It likely holds little interest for the average reader, but it assumes little to no knowledge of the series, and works well as a prequel for that same reason. As for anyone who has played the games, they will get a fair amount of enjoyment from this book. The references are well thought out and well implemented, even if they do happen too frequently and conveniently at times, and it’s going to bring back memories of traipsing through Rapture as Jack or Subject Delta.
Despite my concerns, I would still recommend this book to anyone who loved the game series, because it will scratch that itch between now and the release of BioShock: Infinite, the third game, in 2012.
Kathryn A. Ryan, July 2011