Happy New Year’s Eve, everybody! 2016 may have been a bad year for everyone, but at least it wasn’t 1959 in Rapture.
Also, this post will have SPOILERS from Bioshock and Bioshock 2. You have been warned.
Bioshock is the scariest game I’ve ever played and completely out of my comfort zone. Yet the atmosphere and the story were so absorbing that I just had to keep playing and I ended up loving it.
Still, I went back and forth for a while on writing this post. Technically, Bioshock: Rapture isn’t a straight adaptation of the spectacular, haunting video game. It’s a prequel novel that shows how Andrew Ryan founded Rapture and how it devolved into the horror show that Jack finds at the beginning of the game. However, one could technically see it as an adaptation and expansion of the audio diaries, and it uses many characters who appear in some form during Bioshock and Bioshock 2.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it. Ever since playing Bioshock, I’ve eaten up anything I can find about the backstory of Rapture. The game’s about a man named Jack who survives a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Luckily, it lands right next to a lighthouse. Unluckily, that lighthouse is the entrance to an underwater city called Rapture. A man named Andrew Ryan built Rapture as a utopia for a select group of brilliant people, shortly after World War II. He promised that they could achieve success because there would be no restrictions on business, science, or art. No censorship, no ethics, and no religion. Do whatever the heck you want as long as you don’t murder people…and never leave Rapture.
Things spiraled out of control very quickly within the decade. Scientists discovered a substance called ADAM that gave people superpowers. It was also highly addictive and made people unstable. By the time Jack arrives in Rapture, there’s very few sane people left. Everyone else is either dead, in hiding, or wandering around the city trapped in their ADAM addiction, out to kill anybody they consider an enemy- which is almost anyone they meet.
Since there aren’t many people left, Jack and the player find out about Rapture through two sources: a survivor named Atlas who guides you through the city via radio, and audio diaries left scattered around. It’s like putting together a big puzzle. John Shirley, author of Bioshock: Rapture, made his own attempt to put the pieces together. While I did like it, it does have a few problems.
1) The Women
Apart from Sofia Lamb, the female characters do not get much to do in this book. We get wonderful embellishments on Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine, and Bill McDonagh, but what about Brigid Tenenbaum? She’s arguably one of the protagonists of the first game with a very interesting story arc. Unfortunately, almost every thought or lengthy piece of dialogue that she has in the book comes straight from her audio diaries in the game, with no alterations. Everyone else got some original dialogue for the book, so what happened with her?
But at least Dr. Tenenbaum got development. That’s more than can be said for poor Dr. Julie Langford. She’s an important character in the first game. At the very least, she’s no more or less important than Dr. J.S. Steinman or Sander Cohen. Langford joined Team Rapture as a botanist who developed the garden of Arcadia. Arcadia provided oxygen to the people living in Rapture and peaceful place for them to visit. Then Andrew Ryan deciding to start charging people to visit and even put a price on oxygen. Julie Langford opposed these ideas, but ultimately let it slide because she didn’t want to lose her job. Eventually she does switch sides to help Jack.
She gets one scene in the entire 400-page novel. One scene. Not only that, but it’s just a conversation between her and Bill about the problem with Andrew commercializing Arcadia. In comparison, Sander Cohen pops up all over the book and Dr. Steinman gets several passages that take place from his perspective. They’re not the main focus of the book or anything, but they get more to do than Julie Langford, one of the only allies that Jack finds in Bioshock.
We don’t get to see much of Jasmine Jolene except through Andrew Ryan’s eyes, despite the hints that she’s not as happy with him as he thinks. Why did she “need the money so bad” that she made a shady deal with Fontaine, when Ryan was providing for her? It’s implied that Fontaine worked on convincing her that Ryan wasn’t trustworthy, but there’s never any passages in the book from her perspective- and her deal with Fontaine is an extremely important moment in the plot.
Ryan’s other lover, Diane McClintock, gets treated better by the author, but her development’s not consistent with the audio diaries in the game. She seems to be having second thoughts about Ryan and the way things are before the New Year’s attacks, but the game says that she changed her mind when she saw the attacks happening in Apollo Square after the New Year’s attacks. I guess this one’s more of a personal grievance than anything else. I just really liked the game’s version of her character.
I would’ve liked to have read some scenes from Anya Andersotter’s perspective too. She wasn’t a huge character but she did try to kill Ryan after her daughter got turned into a Little Sister. All she gets is a passing mention in the book.
2) The Audio Diaries
I like Shirley’s explanation for the diaries’ existence. Andrew Ryan believes that Rapture will eventually reshape the world after the “parasites” in the American and Russian governments run it into the ground. So he encourages the citizens of Rapture to record their thoughts and the events happening in their lives, for the sake of future generations. That fits his character.
The book has scenes where the characters either listen to the audio diaries or record them, and those scenes mostly make sense in context. However, there are other times where the characters’ dialogue is what they say in the audio diaries, except they’re not recording.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in certain scenes. For example, here’s one of the audio diaries of Tenenbaum, as found in the game:
One of the children came and sat in my lap. I push her off, I shout, “Get away from me!” I can see the ADAM oozing out of the corner of her mouth, thick and green. Her filthy hair hanging in her face, dirty clothes, and that dead glow in her eye… I feel… hatred, like I never felt before, in my chest. Bitter, burning fury. I can barely breathe. And suddenly, I know, it is not this child I hate.
In the book, she says this word-for-word to Frank Fontaine, not in an audio diary. Ignoring the fact that it doesn’t seem likely that a person would remember exactly what they said during a conversation and then record it verbatim later, I have trouble believing that Tenenbaum would be this open with Fontaine. Why would she casually reveal to a gangster that she doesn’t like working for him anymore? She’s not stupid.
I might not have cared as much if the audio diaries didn’t appear at all in the book. Then, while I’d still be annoyed by a lack of original dialogue for Tenenbaum, it wouldn’t seem as out of place. It would feel like a shout-out to a game mechanic. But since the audio diaries are included in the story, the act of inserting the words from those recordings into natural conversations comes off as lazy, especially in Tenenbaum’s case. It’s like the author couldn’t come up with original dialogue for a particular scene, so he copied and pasted from the game.
3) Bringing It All Together
Shirley made the wise decision to combine the backstories of Bioshock and Bioshock 2 together. After going through Jack’s nightmare trip in the first game, the second game picks up ten years later with a new villain who was supposedly always there in Rapture. We just never heard anything about her even though she was such an important rival to Andrew Ryan.
The book covers Sofia Lamb’s arrival in Rapture and how she quickly falls out of favor with Ryan as she lays the foundation for her own schemes. It’s all wonderfully written…but then it just ends. Shirley only covers the story of Rapture from the time that Andrew Ryan starts laying the foundation to 1959, one year before Jack arrives. This means that a lot of characters’ story arcs remain unfinished at the end. Sofia Lamb succeeds in taking control of the place where she was being held as a political prisoner, and it looks like she’s about to reclaim her daughter and start some new plan…but it never goes anywhere within the book because her plans don’t come to fruition until Bioshock 2.
Frank Fontaine and Jack suffer from the same problem. While I loved the way Frank was written in the book, his story basically ends after the shootout at Fontaine’s Fisheries. The reader knows he had plans in motion that would continue after the attack, but nothing comes out of it. He’s got this big con planned with Jack, and then Jack gets sent on the bathysphere in the middle of Part 3, and never reappears in the story.
The book just doesn’t work as a self-contained story because there are too many loose ends. Brigid Tenenbaum rescues some of the Little Sisters and goes into hiding…then what? Readers won’t find out unless they play the game. What happens to Andrew Ryan and the rest of the people in the city? We don’t know because those answers come when Jack shows up in the games. What is Sofia Lamb planning to do with her daughter? Will Frank Fontaine succeed in taking over the city? Whatever happened to Sander Cohen?
Bill’s story wraps up nicely and the last scenes in the book are heart-wrenching. But in regards to everyone else, if I hadn’t played the first game, I would’ve felt unsatisfied.
Okay, now for the things I liked:
First, as I alluded before, I loved Frank Fontaine’s story. He’s a great villain and foil to Andrew Ryan. He filled me with dread pretty much from the get-go. Shirley doesn’t give him much of a backstory except for a few mentions of growing up in an orphanage, but it’s not needed. Fontaine’s like Maleficent or the Joker where he’s menacing enough and compelling enough that no backstory is needed to make him an interesting character.
Bill McDonagh’s a good protagonist: a man who genuinely believes in Rapture and Ryan’s philosophy, but cannot turn a blind eye to the problems that appear as the city falls apart. Now I wish that we’d seen more of him in the games. I like his friendship with Ryan too. On that note, I found myself sympathizing with Andrew Ryan against all odds. He makes so many mistakes and hurts/kills a lot of people. Yet it’s still sad to watch his dream fall apart, while he deludes himself into believing that Rapture will survive and everything will be fine. Unlike Fontaine, he’s a complex villain and they play off of each other well.
Finally, there’s two minor characters that I enjoyed: Redgrave and Karlosky. Both are loyal to Andrew Ryan and consider Bill a friend until Bill tries to leave Rapture. Redgrave is an African-American constable and Karlosky is the Russian bodyguard of Andrew Ryan.
They’re good characters on their own, but I also love what they bring to the story of Rapture, though it’s only touched upon. Like Bill, Redgrave feels loyal to Rapture because it’s given him opportunities that he wouldn’t have in America as a black man. He also says that he likes Bill’s family because they’re the only white family that invites him over to dinner multiple times.
This raises so many interesting questions about society in Rapture that the game doesn’t discuss. What are racial relations like in Rapture? What about women, LGBT+ communities, and people with disabilities? On the one hand, Rapture was founded specifically to do away with any rules, morals, or ethics that might hold a person back from whatever they wanted to do. So, theoretically, there should be no problems with sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. But how did that actually play out? This story takes place in the 1950’s, when sexism, racism, and homophobia were part of the norm. It’s not like people can just turn off their feelings when they move to a new environment. I imagine there’d still be resentment felt by white people if/when a black person received a promotion over one of them. They wouldn’t expect something like that to happen to them.
Sofia Lamb also brings up this issue when she first arrives in Rapture. She compliments Ryan on his society because she thinks it presents a great opportunity for women. Ryan’s reaction is pretty funny: he’s taken aback because the idea never occurred to him before. But after thinking it over for a few seconds, he realizes that, yes, his society does allow women to advance if they work hard.
With Karlosky, it’s touched upon even less, but while he is a white man, he’s also from Russia, a country that’s at war with the United States. Dr. Suchong comes from Japan, which just lost a war to the United States. Brigid Tenenbaum used to work for the Nazis. What kind of prejudice did they face? Do people find them trustworthy? It’s brought up every once a while in little ways, but not very much since the focus is on how Andrew’s society falls apart.
That would’ve been so interesting to explore in the games and I wish they’d had more minorities in the cast. As it is, the book doesn’t go very deeply into the issue, but at least Shirley brings it up every once and a while.
So, all in all, I’m glad that I read Bioshock: Rapture, though it wasn’t quite on par with the game. Someday, I would really love to see a movie or a television series adaptation that would show the backstory of the city alongside Jack’s adventure. To the people who make movies and TV shows, would you kindly consider adapting Bioshock?