91 Days of Summer: BioShock: Rapture by John Shirley

Discover Rapture’s origins in this humanizing look into one of video game’s most memorable locations.

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In August 2007, Ken Levin created a video game called BioShock, a story-driven first person shooter that took players deep inside an underwater Objectivist paradise led by Andrew Ryan, a self-made man whose characterization is a not-so-subtle reconstruction of philosopher Ayn Rand. As “Jack,” the player witnessed a society that tore itself apart after the discovery of ADAM, a special concoction made from the stem cells of sea slugs that grants incredible regenerative and superhuman powers on people at the cost of their sanity. BioShock offered a critique of Objectivism, suggesting that John Galt’s vision of a perfect society free from charity was not invulnerable to the pressures of socio-economic problems. Like John Galt before him, Andrew Ryan’s beliefs relied on the notion that EVERYONE shared HIS vision of a world free of altruism. Rapture was supposed to thrive on the basic principle of “every man/woman for themselves.” It failed and claimed a great many lives.

Through a series of audio diaries and one way communications, the player identifies two big players in the battle for Rapture, Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, a man whose business acumen and cunning rivaled Ryan. BioShock: Rapture sheds light on Rapture’s origins, and the circumstances that brought Fontaine to power, through the eyes of those who helped bring the city to rise and fall. More importantly, the book humanizes Andrew Ryan who was depicted in the game as a paranoid villain with a deep grudge for Communism, ruling the city with a heavy and cruel hand. Through the eyes of Bill McDonagh, a plumber turned building contractor for Rapture, we see that Andrew Ryan believed in a a vision of a world free from the horrors of the atomic bomb, from nosy governments and taxation. This was a man who burned down a forest rather than see it nationalized by the American government for public use. As Rapture’s problems grow, Ryan’s vision is blurred as he becomes the very thing he rallied against, culminating in his nationalizing of Fontaine’s smuggling front, Fontaine Fisheries. Blind by his faith in “The Great Chain,” Rapture becomes a place of public executions and home to violent, ADAM-addicted Splicers.

The novel incorporates elements from both BioShock and BioShock 2, fleshing out (to a varying degree) important players like Augustus Sinclair, Sander Cohen, Eleanor Lamb, Frank Fontaine, Brigid Tenenbaum, Diane McClintock, and Atlas. Through the book, we get to understand what qualities and passions brought them to Rapture. John Shirely does a great job painting a vivid and complex picture of Rapture, from its early construction to its eventual social implosion, and Andrew Ryan as a man of vision, principle. He also exposes Ryan’s hubris. For Rapture to work, everyone needed to be on the same page. Were it not for the personal machinations of Sofia Lamb and Frank Fontaine, the utopia might have survived. But then again, the rise of the working class would have been a serious problem. After all, it was Fontaine who said, “These sad saps. They come to Rapture, thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry. But they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.” Fontaine was able to capitalize on the growing dissent among the working class, keeping them hopped up on ADAM in exchange for serving as his own personal army.

Frank Fontaine. If there was a single villain in BioShock, it was the con artist who beseeched Jack as Atlas to fight his way through Rapture in order to kill Ryan. So much is learned about the nature of Fontaine’s character and pivotal role in the BioShock universe. We first meet him as Frank Gorland, a master at the long con and finding opportunity in every situation. Gorland became Fontaine after killing the real Frank Fontaine and edged his way into Rapture by taking over a supply operation during Rapture’s construction. It was he who took Brigid Tenenbaum and Yi Suchong into his grasp after their initial discovery of ADAM, giving them facilities and the test subjects they need to produce EVE and Plasmids as well as turn orphaned girls into walking ADAM collectors protected by the Big Daddies.

BioShock: Rapture fills in a lot of events that were alluded to from the game and seeing them play out is fascinating. It’s a shame that the final Third Age of Rapture portion of the book, where much of the war takes place, reads a lot like a video game novelization as enemy and Plasmid types along with other “gamey” elements make the last third of the book rather uninteresting.

The story of Rapture is a tragic one. A world meant to safeguard the best and brightest from a chaotic post-World War II society, it is brought to its knees by the very thing it meant to protect: self interest. Rapture was to sustain free market principles and support “survival of the fittest” business practices but the lack of government regulation, ethics and financial assistance allows cracks to form in the facade. Our selfishness and the desire for more is a part of the human condition found in everyone one, form the lowliest maid to the high powered executive. The idea of Rapture isn’t strong enough to support a philosophy that expects everyone to work hard, a notion far easier said than done.

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