BioShock: Rapture – interview with the author, John Shirley

July 26, 2011 by Chris Wigham  
Filed under Features

BioShock: Rapture is a book that really brings the BioShock series to life in the written form. John Shirley, the author, did a terrific job (read my detailed thoughts here) in setting up the events of the games with this prequel novel. I was delighted and thankful when he agreed to answer my questions in regard to the book.

How were you selected to write the BioShock: Rapture novel?

We were pitching ideas for novels to Tor books. Eric Raab, a Tor editor who knew my work, thought I might be the guy to adapt the game. I had written the Constantine novelization before that, and some other tie-ins; also a lot of my own novels, like the A SONG CALLED YOUTH books or A SPLENDID CHAOS are science-fiction horror and that’s basically what Bioshock is, at least in large part…I had won the Bram Stoker Award too, and that didn’t hurt.

Did 2K Games keep looking over your shoulder to make sure that the book was authentic?

We had story conferences and went through a couple of outlines before they agreed to one. They also gave me “notes”, a process with a very Hollywood movie-making feel (I’ve worked as a script writer in television and movies, eg The Crow). Ken Levine had to approve everything and it wasn’t always an easy process. One aspect that made it difficult was, partway through the process, they decided we had to incorporate Bioshock 2 into the novel–originally it was to be a prequel to Bioshock, the first game–and that meant a lot of rewriting, incorporating new material, more research, so that was one of the causes of the book’s delay. It was originally to be released much earlier…Ultimately though I think it made for a stronger novel. Of course, being a writer, a rather independent-minded breed, I bitched a bit, but I went along and now I’m glad I did.

Did you have prior knowledge of the BioShock universe before 2K Games approached you to write the novel?

Yes–I’d played Bioshock and liked it a lot, especially the premise, the undersea setting, the art deco look of the thing, and certain amusing characters like Sander Cohen. ..Then I played Bioshock 2, while writing the novel, and played the first game again. I played each game through several times. I made sure I experienced all the different endings. Of course, a novel– setting aside the choose your adventure type novels written for kids–can have only one ending, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Oh, theoretically you could write an adult, involved, artistically strong novel with several endings…you read the first one then it says, “Alternate ending number one”, say, but that would not work for most readers. You’d lose narrative momentum. Somehow in a game it works…

Andrew Ryan’s greatness really emanates from the pages, but he’s also something more; I bet you really enjoyed writing about this character?

Yes, although I don’t ascribe to his political vision at all, or Ayn Rand’s, he’s fun–a writer has to “be” his characters, temporarily, as actors have to be the characters they’re playing, in a way. And it’s fun to be, for the sake of the story, a fanatic like Ryan, ranting away, constructing his grand vision, letting his ego shape the world in his image. He tried to create an undersea colony that was Andrew Ryan, in a sense. Andrew Ryan is a kind of combination of the real-life figure of William Randolph Hearst (think of his gigantic Hearst Castle) and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fused in the heat of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist beliefs, and that’s an interesting sociological “playing field” for a writer. Many great men are not actually goodmen–to me, greatness means bigness of character, a grand vision, and you can find that in some of history’s famous villains. Think of Mao Tse Tung:  Great–but his vision was corrupt. I’m convinced any absolutist system–any system that incorporates intolerance–whether communist or libertarian, is doomed. Societies need wiggle room and flexibility and modification. In a way, in the grand scheme of things, liberals need conservatives and conservatives need liberals, though neither would admit it. Society is a synthesis…Andrew Ryan started out as an extreme libertarian conservative and then became a kind of hypocritical autocrat. Too often people who say they’re all about freedom are really only about freedom for themselves–and the game Bioshock, as well as my novel, satirizes and exposes that kind of hypocrisy; it dramatizes, through action and bizarre event, the deterioration of a society that is fixated on one single way of doing things, to the exclusion of all others. If we wear blinders, insisting on tunnel vision, we get hit by a truck at an intersection…I’m sure you noticed that the name Ayn Rand, by the way, is found in the name Andrew Ryan, a kind of semi-anagram…

There are a lot of well written characters, but which ones did you personally bond with?

I had to bond with Bill McDonagh because he was chosen–between me and Ken Levine–as the main point of view character, and certainly he’s the most likable major character in the novel, apart from his wife. The only problem with him–and I groused about this at the time–is that he’s a cockney, from Cheapside London, and coming up with authentic dialogue that doesn’t make him sound like  “Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins” is hard. I had to do a lot of research on cockney speak. I also had to modify it so Americans could understand everything he said. I had the same problem with the very British John Constantine in the two Hellblazer novels I wrote for Pocket Books. In Bioshock: Rapture I write from several points of view, so that I could get the “big picture” of Rapture.  We have Ryan’s point of view in the novel, which I enjoyed, and the point of view of crazies like Dr Steinman– it’s especially fun for a writer to “be” a crazy person while writing, you get to imagine his state of mind from within. A little vacation from sanity, on the page anyway, is always refreshing. I also went into the point of view of Frank Fontaine, and exploring his psychopathic con artist sensibility was interesting and challenging. He and Ryan were the two I had to work very hard on to satisfy 2K–and that extra hard work improved the book.

The city of Rapture is a wonderful creation; did you have fun bringing it to life in the written form?

Oh sure. Rapture, visually, is gorgeous,  eerie, and at the same time a glorious conception. I enjoyed imagining how they might have built Rapture–the first game doesn’t explain this, really but the second game offers some indications as to how it was done. I incorporated that and I spoke to some engineers, made up some science fictional building materials to make it internally logical. The art deco/World’s Fair design of Rapture is difficult to render in words, but I think I managed to give a strong impression of it. I didn’t go into all the details, there’s very little on the use of airlocks and so on. I had to make up–with the approval of 2K–various methodologies for bringing in the subs, and other practical considerations.  I borrowed one small bit from one of Frank Herbert’s novels. Trying to make the city Rapture believable was fun but also difficult. I do think I overcame the difficulties. It may be that I did more than most readers needed,  making it scientifically plausible, but I needed to believe it was plausible in order to get truly involved in the peculiar world of Rapture…

Things do sadly begin to fall apart for Rapture and Andrew Ryan, though, don’t they?

Again, the illogical rigor of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is what makes that inevitable. Plus Andrew Ryan has a kind of fatal flaw in his character and that flaw extends to the world that he created around himself. He reminds me of the nautilus, the creature that makes the many chambered shell to live in. If the nautilus has a fatal flaw, its shell will be fatally flawed. Ryan believed fiercely in freedom–yet he doesn’t want freedom for his employees, really. He will crush a union ruthlessly. Eventually his willingness to sacrifice other people’s freedom to guarantee his own becomes the framework of a dictatorship. Also, of course, his insistence on no regulations, no regulatory boundaries for research or the marketplace, takes Rapture into a tailspin with the discovery of plasmids. Plasmids are addictive, they induce violent mania, and they confer wild powers– that’s a pretty destructive combination. Greed is also a factor–plasmid sales represent a lot of profit. Unchecked greed, as the recession we’re going through illustrates, is destructive…

Science without any bounds is one of the themes of the book; Rapture is a pretty scary place, don’t you think?

Definitely and there are analogies in the real world. There are people who want to legalize all narcotics. Though I don’t smoke pot, I can see legalizing it–but all drugs, really? Imagine if you could get any amount of methedrine or PCP at the corner store (or both at once). That’s what plasmids are like–only, add in that the corner store (as in Rapture) sells machine guns and ammo to go along with madness-inducing drugs. And perhaps rocket packs, for flying. So in the real world you theoretically could fly in an insanely stoned state and shoot at people from the sky. In an unregulated environment, that could happen. You’d be afraid to go outside! The guy who shot New Mexico Representative Giffords was rather like a splicer, without the super powers. He had a gun with an extended magazine, and he had the psychosis. And I think the madness-induced madness in Rapture represents our fears of our own world going out of control.

The ending is rather sad in more ways than one, as an author have you ever made yourself cry?

As I had to use Bill McDonagh–and we know how he ended up–that aspect of the ending was indeed sad. But I made sure that there was something good happening too–I don’t want to discuss that too much, as it will be a spoiler for people who haven’t read the book–for characters I created, at the end of the tale. I have, yes, actually made myself sort of…not cry, exactly, but feel like I wanted to. I try to always end my books with some realism–and reality is a bit dark–but also I see that there are rays of hope. I always make sure there’s light at the end of the tunnel. But sometimes one tragically loses characters one has gotten attached to. In my urban fantasy novel Bleak History (not a tie-in novel), Gabriel Bleak loses family members, grapples with darkness, sees some sad things playing out…but while sacrifices are made, he eventually triumphs. That’s how I prefer it. Also, I draw on my own life in some books, and stories–and stuff that makes me sad in my life, makes me sad in my books!

Would you be open to pen more BioShock books?

I would sure consider it. This book was more difficult than other tie in books in that it was a prequel and it took place over ten years or so. So that makes it episodic, jumping ahead in time a lot. It also required me to envision the building of Rapture–which was a big challenge to undertake. I’ve written a novel based on the Borderlands game, for Pocket Books…the novel is called Borderlands: The Fallen…and that was simply an adventure set on that world set over a short time so it didn’t have the daunting requirements of Bioshock: Rapture. I might not have that problem in the next Bioshock novel.

Finally, placing yourself in the story, what would your advice be to Andrew Ryan in order to better succeed with Rapture?

I’d advise Andrew to look at himself with real sincerity–because Rapture is an expression of his will, as he says more than once; it’s an expression of him. Rapture is an emanation from Ryan that takes physical form. So when it starts to go wrong–what is there he might see in himself that’s also out there in Rapture? Maybe he’ll realize that intolerance and lack of balance represent a disastrous combination…

Thanks to John Shirley for taking the time to answer these questions.

Below is A Note from John Shirley, which was originally intended to be included in the novel:

This novel is a dramatization of the backstory of BioShock and BioShock 2. It is essentially a “prequel” to the events in the first two BioShock games. It incorporates information I gleaned in playing the games through several times and in consulting with designers, online sites, books, interviews. I also pored over background and timeline materials provided for me by 2K and by Tor Books.

The tale you hold in your hands begins shortly after Rapture was first conceived, and carries on, through Rapture’s civil war, into 1959. The main characters, and some minor characters, from Bioshock are to be found here; characters from Bioshock 2, like Sofia Lamb, and the Wales brothers and even Delta, as well as settings and historical details from BioShock 2,  are also incorporated.

While we sometimes leap several years from one chapter to the next, the story’s arc is unmistakable, and is close as possible to the tale that emerges in the audio diaries, public address announcements, and radio conversation found in the game. It also incorporates consultancy provided by Ken Levine (through the conscientious efforts of Sarah Rosa). I drew terminology, large events, and characters from the game, but invented a certain amount of connective story and character background. I created a few new characters, as required in the composition of a novel, but never knowingly contradicted BioShock. As suggested by Ken Levine, the narrative’s chief protagonist is Bill McDonagh.

Most of the narrative threads begun in this book are resolved by its finale. A few are resolved within the games themselves. I was very pleased to be involved in adapting this unique, artfully designed game.

JS, 2010

John Shirley Bio: John Shirley won the Bram Stoker Award for his story collection Black Butterflies, and is the author of numerous novels, including the best-seller DEMONS, the cyberpunk classics CITY COME A-WALKIN’, ECLIPSE, and BLACK GLASS, and his latest, new from Simon & Schuster, the urban fantasy novel BLEAK HISTORY. He is a screenwriter, having written for television and movies; he was co-screenwriter of THE CROW. He will be in Prime Books’ THE YEAR’S BEST DARK FANTASY AND HORROR anthology, this year, and his story collection IN EXTREMIS: THE MOST EXTREME SHORT STORIES OF JOHN SHIRLEY from Underland Press has been getting rave advance reviews. His novel BIOSHOCK: RAPTURE, telling the story of the creation and undoing of Rapture, from the hit videogame BIOSHOCK is about to come out from TOR books. He is also a lyricist, having written lyrics for 18 songs recorded by the Blue Oyster Cult…

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