BioShock‘s settings are the stars of the show. Rapture took players to a libertarian dystopia under the sea that drew on and criticized the Objectivist philosophy first developed throughout the ’40s and ’50s by writer Ayn Rand. Columbia took players above the clouds to Columbia, a floating World’s Fair-style city held up as much by nationalism and racism as hydrogen balloons, directly addressing America’s history of genocide and its turn-of-the-century status as a growing imperial power. Both cities took utopian visions and exposed their true colors. BioShock 4 will almost certainly attempt to do the same.
BioShock 4‘s city needs to be as different from Rapture and Columbia, as those two settings were from one another. However, it should create its dystopian vision from the speculative utopias of different fiction writers and philosophers just like its predecessors. Luckily, this leaves a wide variety of options. Here are just some of the places BioShock 4 could go after Rapture and Columbia.
The idea of an Ecotopia has been explored by several different writers. In 1975 author Ernest Callenbach released Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. The book explored a near-ideal society that sprung from the green movement which to hold in America in the 1970s.
Callenbach’s Ecotopia values both environmental and social balance. It promotes the need for gender equality, restoring and maintaining natural systems, and sustainable food production. Although the appeal for a series like BioShock might not be immediately apparent, it could be a particularly interesting utopian vision to explore in a world where the cataclysmic effects of climate change are becoming increasingly obvious.
There are plenty of ways an Ecotopia could quickly become dystopian. Instead of governmental regulation, Callenbach’s Ecotopia largely relies on the application of moral pressure in both the public and private spheres. Its economics, like Rapture, are largely laissez-faire. It’s easy to see how a setting governed by strict social pressure but predicated on laissez-faire economics could become a pressure cooker that could, ironically, render it unsustainable.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s satirical novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia was also released in the ’70s, and explored some of the potential shortcomings of an Ecotopia. In her book, the ruthlessly capitalist planet Urras is orbited by the Ecotopian world of Anarres. Urras is horrifically hierarchical, but Anarres has problems of its own.
In order to keep its society sustainable, Anarres’ population is subject to back-breaking agricultural labor in the desert. Cloud Chamber would need to be careful with this sort of setting, carefully exploring the shortcomings of the Ecotopia as envisioned in the ’70s without coming across as anti-environmentalist. The opportunity to create an environmentalist vision gone wrong and wrapped in the easily identifiable aesthetics of the 1970s, however, could be hard to resist.
The Automated Utopia
Over 100 years before The Dispossessed was published, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon imagined a world that, in contrast to Victorian Britain he grew up in, had completely got rid of machinery. In three chapters called The Book of the Machine, he was one of the earliest authors to speculate that machinery, through processes similar to Charles Darwin’s then recently-published On The Origin Of Species, could develop consciousness.
Erewhon — nowhere backward — isn’t quite a full utopia or dystopia. Butler’s anxieties about the long-term implications of the industrial revolution, however, do paint an interesting picture of a potential dystopia that could form the basis for BioShock 4‘s setting.
BioShock 4 could be set in a world where machinery has completely removed the need for labor, and where all work is now handled by self-running machines. As with Ecotopia, this could be particularly interesting to tackle because the idea is so appealing. In his essay Darwin Among the Machines, Butler made one comment which scratches the surface of the potential horror of an automated society:
“They say that although man should become to the machines what the horse and dog are to us, yet that he will continue to exist, and will probably be better off in a state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than in his present wild condition. We treat our domestic animals with much kindness. We give them whatever we believe to be the best for them; and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has increased their happiness rather than detracted from it.”
For anyone who shudders at the thought of being treated like modern livestock by beings who not only hold total power but who have goals that could become increasingly incomprehensible to humans, the opportunity for BioShock 4 to create a dystopian automated society is clear. Butler’s literary persona supposes that humans will still be necessary for maintaining and reproducing the machines. It’s easy to imagine what might happen if that assumption proved false.
The Utilitarian Utopia
Aldous Huxley was best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but one of his most interesting works, Island, explores his idea of its utopian counterpart to that setting. Journalist and huckster Will Farnaby intentionally shipwreck himself on a forbidden, utopian island in the south pacific. Although it’s utopian, there are still clear ways Huxley’s idea of a utopia could turn nasty. When first sketching out the idea in a foreword to Brave New World, Huxley contemplated a society run by “a kind of Higher Utilitarianism” — the idea that the maximization of happiness should be the sole driving force of a society.
Once again the principle has immediate appeal, but it’s easy to imagine how human imperfections could cause it to take a turn for the worse. The path to maximum happiness would either have to be judged by a person or group with their own prejudices or reduced to the measurements of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, both of which leave little room for individual human rights. A BioShock protagonist might quickly learn, as Booker DeWitt does, that their own death is necessary to maximize happiness in the world.
BioShock 4 is currently in development.