The Biopunk Reader


Bioshock: Rapture

by Wyatt Matthews

For better or worse, inner-circle cyberpunk author John Shirley has written the precursor to the Bioshock videogames. It’s the 1940s. Rapture is an art deco metropolis of steel and glass, furnished with brass fittings, and built by men with brass balls. This machotopia is brainchild of the father-figure character Andrew Ryan. The city is this self-made man’s libertarian wet dream--literally because it’s a city build beneath the ocean. Ryan’s claim is that the bottom of the ocean is the only place to build a society that the state cannot control.

Disorder ensues when the citizens of Rapture begin to take “self-made man” in a new direction. Halfway through the book, the novel’s resident mad scientists learn to exploit the amazing transformative powers of mysterious sea slugs and characters start throwing fireballs and lightning bolts like drunken X-Men. The science is not very believable and the story takes a hit in terms of sophistication at the same time that the scenery shifts from Metropolis to Bedlam. Rapture’s motto is “NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN.” One of Andrew Ryan’s many failings is that he hadn’t the foresight to factor post-humans into the equation.

Since it’s set in the diesel era, you at first get the sense that you’re reading Ayn Rand. John Shirley immerses us in his world with description precision equal to the most slick computer-generated images. Building the grand scale engineering projects we encounter with words is an epic feat in of itself. It’s as if John Shirley was onto something and then got a reminder call from his editor saying, “Remember, this is a videogame storyline…” The second half is an action-packed splatterfest that’s a bit shlocky. If that's your thing, you'll find it full of grim and gritty fun. Psychotic doctors with twisted sense of aesthetics doing avant garde "artistic" plastic surgery experiments, creepy little girls with iron giant cyborg sidekicks... Now is about the time when it becomes evident that the reviewer has never actually played Bioshock or Bioshock 2, etc. so any appreciation that is lacking may be result of that.

A whole cast of characters fill these pages, but I felt that Ryan, the conductor of the great symphony, remained the most interesting character throughout, probably because he was the man with the big ideas. With science fiction, it’s often the book’s big idea(s) that are the true “main character,” and everyone else serves as either an archetype or as a mouthpiece for those ideas.

Ryan brings the tension between competing ideologies to light. He is an atheist who clings to a quasi-religious devotion to industry, and while trying wholeheartedly to avoid the woes of socialism, his society begins to mirror the kind of dictatorship that he abhors. As a politician, he ranges from lucid and almost convincing (“true cooperation is enlightened self-interest”) to shortsighted and hypocritical (“charity is just a kind of socialism”). Asshole that he may be, he keeps the storyline philosophically charged.

Based on the fact that there are over 1,000 wiki pages about Bioshock, there is certainly a more qualified fan out there somewhere, so ask them if you want to be pushed eagerly in the direction of reading Bioshock: Rapture with what’s left of your summer.

If you instead prefer short and sweet, here are a few bio-themed ebooks out there for 99 cents that are worth a read:

Spermjackers by Jamie McNabb: In spite of the title, it’s not porn. It's kind of like that old movie Ice Pirates but this time the space bounty hunters are gunning for your gametes.

Little Boy Pig by Shad Clark: A great biopunk folk tale with a sensitive side.

The Willies by Hamish MacDonald: Okay, this one is not short. It’s 800-pages long, and well written (and still just 99 cents). Cloning shenanigans fit for the I-read-McSweeny’s crowd.

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