I just finished playing BioShock Infinite. It’s a game with very high highs and very low lows. Plenty of people have said really interesting things about the game, and I won’t retread their words.
What I do want to talk about is Thomas Pynchon and videogames. It’s been a while since I last did that.
In 2006 he released a book called Against the Day. It takes place from 1893 to an unspecified time period after World War I. And I want to point out that there are an awful lot of parallels between Against the Day and BioShock Infinite.
***Plot spoilers for both works ahead!***
The World’s Columbian Exposition
BI is heavily influenced by the great 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago. The entire game takes place at approximately the same time period in the airborne city of “Columbia,” whose architecture is heavily, heavily influenced by the architecture of its famed White City. When you arrive, there is a massive World’s Fair-like festival going on, and a character makes a reference to a Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Columbian Exposition. Anyway this is an obvious and well-known thing about the game.
AtD opens with the Chums of Chance piloting their airship to to the Expo, and the first five or so chapters take place at or around the Expo.
While the idea that two creative works would both reference the Expo (one of the pivotal moments in American history) is really not remarkable on its own, the fact that AtD opens with both airships and the Expo is kind of interesting.
Bifurcation of people
One of the major themes of Against the Day is bifurcation, or doubling. As Sam Leith noted of the book in The Spectator:
“The book is shot through with doubling, or surrogacy. There are the palindromic rival scientists Renfrew and Werfner. [...] Events on one side of the world have an occult influence on those on the other. ‘Double refraction’ through a particular sort of crystal allows you to turn silver into gold. Mirrors are to be regarded with, at least, suspicion. It gets more complicated, and sillier. We’re introduced to the notion of ‘bilocation’ — where characters appear in two places at once — and, later, to that of ‘co-consciousness’, where someone’s own mind somehow bifurcates. ‘He wondered if he could be his own ghost,’ Pynchon writes of one character.”
There are several pairs of “twins” in AtD. Scarsdale Vibe hired a substitute to fight for him during the Civil War–a common practice among the wealthy. After the war, his substitute Foley Walker finds him, and they become mystically connected, referred to as “the twin Vibes”. Renfrew and Werfner are rival scientists who (if memory serves me) used to be the same person, but a botched experiment split them in two.
BI features notable twins, botched experiments, and multiple realities of its own. The Lutece twins (the best characters in the game) have a very Pynchonian origin. Rosalind Lutece is a Tesla-like genius scientist who harnesses quantum phenomena to open holes to other dimensions. In one of these dimensions she discovers her “brother”, who I think is just herself but born as a boy. She pulls him into her reality, and they form a weird pair that act as the player’s mysterious guides through the world. Comstock and DeWitt are also “twins”: they are twins who split at a key moment in DeWitt’s life involving his life as a soldier. Dewitt bifurcates into Comstock after experiencing trauma at Wounded Knee. Walker and Vibe merge into the same person after one of them experiences trauma in the Civil War.
In addition to the reality-bending stuff above, AtD features plenty of alternate realities. There is an eerie scenes (my favorite in the novel) where someone notices that a photograph is essentially a differential of light: the dx/dt is a moment and that moment is captured by the photo–so they invent a way to take the integral of a photograph, and are able to peer inside and infer what life the moment that was captured lives: almost but not quite our own reality.
BI of course, is all about multiple realities, the “infinite” in its title referring to the infinite number of BioShock-like universes out there. Paraphrasing Elizabeth at the end: “There will always be a man, and his city, and a lighthouse.”
My favorite conceit from BI is that many of the songs you hear in the game are actually modern pop songs, sung in old timey style to the point where you might not even recognize them (I sure didn’t until the credits rolled!). Pynchon loves filling his books with anachronistic references (see my Tetris piece, or this famous Simpsons reference) and especially songs and references to pop music.
I’ll end with this quote from Louis Menand’s review of AtD, summarizing the overall theme of Against the Day:
An enormous technological leap occurred in the decades around 1900. This advance was fired by some mixed-up combination of abstract mathematical speculation, capitalist greed, global geopolitical power struggle, and sheer mysticism. We know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes. It turns out (so far) that we can’t. But we did split the atom — an achievement that must once have seemed equally far-fetched. Against the Day is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination. [emphasis mine]
If that doesn’t ring a bell for anyone who’s played Bioshock Infinite, I don’t know what would.