Book Review: Bioshock Rapture by John Shirley

Having recently replayed all of the Bioshock games (including the DLCs I never played before), Amazon recommended me this – an official novelisation of the early years of the city where the first two games (and both DLCs) are based. I’ve generally been mistrusting of this type of book, feeling they often lack the depth of other books. This one has some very good reviews so I took the plunge.

It is the story of Andrew Ryan and the founding of Rapture – the city beneath the sea where the first two incredible games are set. (The third game is set in an equally impossible city, one in the sky and fifty years previously). It follows Ryan’s early life as a young boy escaping the Russian Revolution with his parents and going to America.

Several decades later, the arch-capitalist Andrew Ryan is appalled at the “Socialist” New Deal and sets about devising a project where people like him can live and work in the capitalist utopia that the USA failed to become. Slowly, surely, he starts to put together the plans for his city and starts to recruit people who think the way he does. We see as the city gradually attracts Doctor Suchong, Augustus Sinclair, Sofia Lamb and Brigid Tenenbaum – and, of course, Frank Fontaine.

Surprisingly, and aside from Ryan and Fontaine, the character with the most coverage is Bill McDonagh – the plumber turned chief engineer. McDonagh is a character we only come to learn about through the audio logs dotted around Rapture in the games, so this is a pleasing element to the story. The book ends as the civil war is in full swing between Atlas and Ryan. Everything you could want is here, yet the book feels lacking in so many places.

Firstly, there is very little sense of place. The author assumes familiarity with the games. If you read this having not played the Bioshock games, there are things that will not make sense to you without the context. Nevertheless, that is no reason to avoid describing the various wondrous places within the confines of the city of Rapture. We get no sense of place, no sense of the cabin fever and no real sense of the desperation that people feel when they realise it is not the paradise they were promised. We do see how Fontaine, Atlas and Lamb all exploit the situation – this element of the story is used to increasing good effect through the to explosive civil war.

The second major gripe I have is that these characters about whom I wanted to know so much more is surprisingly lacking. We don’t get much of a back story for Brigid Tenenbaum (although we already know her past, it would have been nice to see more) or Sofia Lamb. This feels like a massive missed opportunity, especially for Lamb who doesn’t feature as much as she should. One great surprise is that (in the beginning at least), Ryan is generally sympathetic. We see precisely why Lamb accuses him of being naive. In the games, we see only the tyrant he has become, but here, we see a man with a desperate vision. Also regarding Andrew Ryan, he is not the great orator he is in the games and therefore lacks the gravitas voiced so well by Armin Shimmerman.

To describe this book as a disappointment would be unfair. Despite these two major flaws, there is much to like about it. Some of the chronology of the games is unclear and I have (in the past) had to keep going back to the story to remind myself of what happened and when. The writer does his best to cover every important thing that happens in and to Rapture. This would have worked much better as a trilogy. The depth was there (pardon the pun) and perhaps the story of the rise of Andrew Ryan and the building of Rapture needed more to do full justice to the amazing story behind these incredible games.

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