“No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” The tagline of both the video games series by 2K games and the novel by John Shirley perfectly encapsulates the themes and story that await the reader and player. The novel is a prequel to the events of the first Bioshock game and follows the rise of Rapture and its eventual downfall. Author John Shirley has created arguably the greatest video game tie-in novel to date.
The novel follows the story of a vast array of characters, such as Andrew Ryan, the enigmatic creator of Rapture who is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep his utopian vision alive. Fans of the series will be pleased to see other familiar characters, such as Frank Fontaine, who really steals the limelight in every scene that he’s in. Other characters such as Bill Donaghue act as the story's moral compass as he navigates an underwater dystopian nightmare while confronting the failures of his employer Andrew Ryan and the ever-growing dangers that lurk within Rapture.
One of the greatest strengths of John Shirley’s writing is his characters, they are so well realised with such unique personalities, especially those of Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, who are almost like two sides of the same coin at times. Both men are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed and even have a begrudging respect for each other. Both men live by the same ideals and don’t care if innocent people are killed in the process. The characterization of each character is expertly woven into the prose, with a personal favourite of mine being the relationship between Bill Donaghue and Andrew Ryan. What starts as a friendly mentor-like relationship quickly begins to spiral as Andrew Ryan takes Bill for granted, and the line “come along, Bill” perfectly captures the dynamic of their relationship. The character growth seen within the novel is riveting. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness at the climax of the story and a certain sense of longing for another book like it.
Another excellent aspect of John Shirley’s work is the time he’s invested in creating Rapture with its 1930s aesthetic and its dimly lit, water-filled corridors and the dirty, rat-infested slums of the city. The degradation of Rapture is truly bewildering to behold as what starts as an optimistic utopian dream quickly divulges into a hedonistic, chaotic nightmare as Rapture is ripped apart by its own inhabitants. Through John Shirley’s prose, he manages to communicate a foreboding sense of unease and despair to the reader that always has them guessing as to how Rapture could get any worse, only to be surprised when events transpire, and yet more things shock you.
The prose within the novel is sharp and snappy, it’s a style that is very accessible to readers, and it makes for very easy reading. John Shirley makes the most of his dialogue to convey so much information about the setting and the characters without ever relying on overt exposition. Each and every description feels like it was written with specificity, and no sentence is wasted. Every line seeks to communicate the despair, hopelessness and paranoia felt by the residents of rapture.
Overall I would rate this novel 5 out of 5 stars, and I can’t recommend this book enough. This book is for any reader that enjoys the Bioshock video games, dystopian fiction and Sci-Fi.