A common trope of science fiction is to show the Earth greatly transformed, or even completely destroyed, in some way. Our poor planet has been used and abused throughout the history of the genre. Here’s a brief guide to the (post-)apocalypse, or dystopian future, covering books, TV, films and video games.
In these titles, Earth is either destroyed or invaded by aliens. In the latter, it is altered to a state where it is unrecognisable: either through the collapse of society and government, or destruction of large portions of the planet. Sometimes the extra-terrestrials are aggressive, sometimes they are just inquisitive, and other times we’re not even aware of them until it is too late.
These titles show an Earth ravaged by illness, disease or plague, including technological viruses and biological warfare. In many of them, the illness transforms humankind into something else, often zombie or vampire-like creatures.
Science fiction frequently shows how humankind causes its own downfall, often through war or revolt. This is a particularly popular theme in current Young Adult dystopian fiction, although it’s not exactly a new trend in the genre. This is one of the more frightening sides of sci-fi: how we become our very own worst enemies. Occasionally, it shows a glimpse into an alternate future or past.
This could also technically come under ‘Humankind’, because most of the time the natural disasters are caused by people, namely through global warming and climate change. This category includes these as well as other things such as asteroids/meteors, tsunamis, earthquakes etc.
Another terrifying thing about science fiction is how government is often portrayed. Often it is shown as being a totalitarian or ‘Big Brother’ society, a term coined from George Orwell’s 1984. Citizens often have very little freedom, or even free will, having been brainwashed into behaving in certain ways.
Okay, maybe there’s a lot of scary things about science fiction – another one being the very thought of the Earth being overrun or overtaken by machines or artificial intelligence. Many a sci-fi tale tells of the invention of some fantastic new technology, only for it to become sentient and rise up against mankind.
Prose & Pixels is a feature that combines two of my loves: books and video games. Here I’ll discuss all sorts of things to do with the two, whether it’s recommendations, influences or just a good old chat.
Today I want to discuss the bookish influences on the Bioshock series of video games.
If you follow my Twitter feed, you may have recently seen me talking about a game called Bioshock, and how I was terrifying myself by playing it with headphones and in the dark. Although it had me screaming, swearing and shrieking, it also got me thinking. There is an obvious bookish influence on the game – the imagery within, as well as some of the character names, instantly made me think of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. So of course I had to do a little research into it, and yes – it’s a big influence, along with many other books.
If you’re not familiar with the games, here is a brief synopsis of the first one:
Set in 1960, Bioshock follows a man named Jack, who ends up in the ocean after his plane crashes. After heading towards a nearby lighthouse, he finds a bathysphere, which takes him to the underwater city of Rapture. Intended to be a utopia by its founder Andrew Ryan, Rapture unfortunately took a turn in the opposite direction with the discovery of ADAM – a plasmid that gives the user superhuman powers. The city is now filled with addicts and horribly transformed people, including the terrifying Big Daddies. Jack has no choice but to fight his way through the city, with the help of a man named Atlas, using plasmids, weapons and the very environment of Rapture itself.
One of the most obvious bookish influences here is the idea of utopia and dystopia. So many times in fiction, we’ve seen a seemingly perfect society peel back its shiny exterior to reveal something cold and very, very horrifying at the centre. And Bioshock is exactly like that. The environments are beautiful, Rapture’s art deco and 1950’s style is pretty breathtaking. Combine that with an underwater setting, where you can play around with water, light and reflections and it really does look like a utopia. I mean, just look at some of the concept art!
At first glance, Rapture looks beautiful. Neon signs, specially crafted underwater gardens, the city neatly divided into sections, entertainment districts – but soon you start to notice the graffiti. You see the blood on the walls, the smashed and ruined windows and belongings. Then the bodies begin to appear, and soon you hear the noises. A high pitched, maniacal laugh. Something running along the ceiling. A long, low groan. Stomping of heavy boots. A young girl whispering to herself (or someone?), whispering things that a young girl shouldn’t even know about. And that’s when you realise – this is DEFINITELY no utopia.
The influence of Ayn Rand on Bioshock
One of the first things that really demonstrated the influence of Rand’s work on the game, was a statue of Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. I can’t find a screenshot of it from Bioshock, but I am currently playing Bioshock 2 and managed to spot it there:
It immediately made think of this:
As well as this statue, there is also the mysterious character of Atlas, an Irishman who guides Jack through the halls of Rapture, and the character Frank Fontaine – the name perhaps inspired by Rand’s The Fountainhead? Perhaps a simpler comparison is that Andrew Ryan is an anagram (albeit with a few extra letters) of Ayn Rand, and that many events throughout the story of Bioshock echo that of Atlas Shrugged.
Like Atlas Shrugged, the city of Rapture is founded on the philosophy of objectivism: the idea that one person should follow their self-interest, and not let the opinions or morals of others get in the way of ambition and ability. A slogan to this effect is often spotted around Rapture:
Biblical influences on Bioshock
It’s not just Ayn Rand’s work that influenced Bioshock. The Garden of Eden was the original utopia, ruined by the actions of Adam and Eve. Similarly, the actions of man (and woman) have ruined the utopia of Rapture. Although ADAM can grant the superhuman powers, a drug called EVE is needed to keep the plasmids active. Not only this, but the very word ‘Rapture’ conjures up Christian imagery: of the ‘good people’ of the world being taken away to a better place. Rapture may have been that place but for, rather ironically, the use of ADAM and EVE.
The influence of other literature
One other book that was immediately brought to mind by the events of Bioshock was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Some of the toughest enemies in the game are called ‘Big Daddies’, which may not sound menacing but they are TERRIFYING. You’ll first know of them when you hear a low groan, and heavy stomping. You might also hear the accompanying Little Sister. The stomps will grow louder as they get closer, and the ground will shake. And it may look slow – but once it spots you or you try to hurt the Little Sister, it really isn’t.
Big Daddies were originally human beings, genetically enhanced and with their skin and organs grafted onto an antique diving suit. I mean, that’s enough to make anybody mad, right? After the process, they are unable to make any noise but a low groan, similar to a whale call. Their original purpose was actually for construction work. However, when the Little Sisters (genetically altered young girls) were sent to collect ADAM from the corpses of Rapture, the Big Daddies were sent to protect them.
The whole idea of creating new life and playing around with genetics really reminds me of Frankenstein, and the Big Daddies are definitely monsters. And like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Big Daddy also has something he wants to protect.
The creators of Bioshock have also claimed that both 1984 by George Orwell and Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan were influences, in that way that the interesting societies in both books were ruined by their creators, humankind.
Have you played any of the Bioshock games? Are there any other books that you think influenced the series?
Rinn: I would first of all like to say thank you Rahul, for letting me interview you. Tomorrow’s Dictator was a pretty harrowing story – peoples’ emotions and behaviours being modified and optimised. How did you come up with the idea for ‘adjustments’?
Rahul: During college, I lived in a vegetarian co-op: a huge house with about fifty students who all cooked and cleaned and lived communally. We were a pretty motley and disorganized lot, except for one girl who was incredibly efficient and well organized. She woke early, exercised frequently, ate right, slept on a mattress out on the porch, and lived in a room with almost no furniture or possessions. She was also extremely even-tempered and never raised her voice or appeared to be visibly annoyed. As such, she was the only person whose complaints and ‘suggestions’ I’d ever take seriously, because, quite frankly, her perfection was quite eerie.
Our coop also ran by consensus, which means that every single person has to agree on a proposal in order for it to be enacted. In practice, this meant that nothing ever got enacted and that everyone did whatever they wanted. At one point, I suggested that we–as per ancient Roman tradition–unanimously acclaim this girl as our dictator (a joke that, of course, she did not particularly enjoy). And that’s where the story came from.
As for adjustments, I’m not sure. That’s something that I played around with in a bunch of stories, and it never quite worked out right. In a world where anyone can be adjusted to be any way that you want, there’s not much room for stories, since most stories are basically about how the protagonist got adjusted to be one way or the other. In this case, though, the story fit just right and everything came together.
Rinn: If you could ‘adjust’ one emotion or behaviour, what would it be? I know I take things too personally and get quite hung up on it, so I would change that!
Rahul: I’d probably adjust myself to be less self-important and condescending.
Rinn: Do you prefer to write short stories over longer works?
Rahul: I prefer to write longer works. Short stories are harder and less enjoyable, because the least enjoyable part of any work is figuring out all the basics: setting, character, conflict, voice, character arc, etc. And the most enjoyable part is when you’ve figured all of that out, and the story starts writing itself. In a short story, the moment you figure that stuff out, then you can write it in about a day. But in a novel, you’ve got months of fun before it ends. However, once you write a short story, you can send it out and sell it and have it published in a fairly short span of time. With novels, the gratification takes much longer.
Rinn: Have you got any particular favourite stories in the Book of Apex Volume 4?
Rahul: Yes! I really liked David J. Schwartz’ “Bear In Contradicting Landscape.” It’s a surrealist story that comes together with that perfect dream-logic that writers are always trying (and failing) to fake. You can tell that the events in the story–though they are seemingly arbitrary–are actually determined by some intuitive aesthetic sense on the part of the author.
Rinn: Have you always been a big fan of science fiction?
Rahul: Yep, ever since I was about ten years old and my mom gave me a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (Which was a book that she’d enjoyed as a girl growing up in India in the 1960s!)
Rinn: Is there anything you’d like to see left out of science fiction?
Rahul: I’m a bit tired of books and stories that are merely fun adventure stories. I like to see something else: new ideas, new settings, new character types. I don’t like books that are just trying to give readers the same thing that they felt when they first read Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke. In literature, there is no going home again. Each book is an non-replicable experience. And if you aim to duplicate it, then you’ll inevitable end up with something worse than the original.
Rinn: Are there any other genres you would encourage people to delve into?
Rahul: Yes! All the genres! But, most particularly, realist literary fiction. There’s something of a bias against it in science fiction circles, which I don’t understand. Oftentimes SF fans will say that realist fiction is boring and that all the most interesting things are being done in the science fiction world. But that makes no sense to me. Do these fans really see no value in stories that are about ordinary, real-world lives? Realist fiction has a wealth and denseness of detail that purely imaginary settings can’t replicate.
Oh, also, I really like crime fiction! And chick-lit!
Rinn: Who, or what, are your inspirations?
Rahul: Lots of people. I’m inspired by Asimov, Heinlein, Ted Chiang, Aimee Bender, Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, among others.
Rinn: I note that you are currently enrolled in a MFA Creative Writing program – do you have a strict routine for this?
Rahul: Yes, I do. During the week, I write for one hour on two days (usually Monday/Wednesday), two hours on three days (usually Friday/Saturday/Sunday), four hours on Tuesday, and eight hours on Thursday. I also try to read at least one hour a day (although it usually ends up being much more than that). And I try to begin writing by 9 AM and do at least one hour before 10 AM.
Rinn: And finally, you’re stranded on a desert island. You can take five books and one other object. What do you take?
Rahul: I’ll leave out the jokey answers (How To Get Off A Desert Island) and just deliver some serious ones. If I had to be alone for extended periods of time, I’d want books that allowed me to think about how and why I should continue to live. And they should also be really long and dense. So I’d probably go for In Search Of Lost Time, Anna Karenina, Atlas Shrugged, War And Peace, and The History of Western Philosophy.
Thank you so much to Rahul for letting me interview him!
Today I want to share a challenge with you all: my definitive list of science fiction reads! They are books I feel every sci-fi fan should read at least once in their lifetime, and as well as creating a challenge for myself I hope that it can be challenge for some of you too. Although I already have a Top Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Challenge, I wanted to create one that reflected all different types of science fiction, including Young Adult. So it will actually be a mix of books I’ve loved, books I really feel I should read because they’re considered classics, and some titles that might often be overlooked, as well as some books that I’ve heard a lot of good things about.