Last week’s review was of a techno-thriller video game tie-in novel. This week’s review is of a techno-thriller video game tie-in novel. By thunder, I hope I’m not turning into one of those people who only reads one type of book. Hopefully, this review will prove interesting enough to justify it.
I should tell you up front: this is going to be long. Brace yourselves accordingly. I’m going Full Berthold on this one.
First, we need a bit of grounding in the universe of Metal Gear, which I’m guessing most of my readers have never heard of, and it may strike the uninitiated as a bit weird. So let me provide some background: as the “2” in the title suggests, this story is a sequel. The original Metal Gear Solid is about a commando named Solid Snake, who infiltrates a military installation in Alaska called Shadow Moses Island, where an elite terrorist unit has taken hostages and captured a huge walking battle tank equipped with nuclear missiles called “Metal Gear Rex.”
Well, long story short, Solid Snake ultimately defeats the terrorists, led by his cloned twin brother Liquid Snake, and destroys Metal Gear Rex. This summary doesn’t even begin to do the story justice, but a proper synopsis would take forever, and it’s not even what we’re discussing today. By the way, here’s your warning that I’m going to spoil MGS 2 in this review. The game came out in 2001, so I feel comfortable discussing every aspect of the plot.
Sons of Liberty begins with Solid Snake infiltrating a huge tanker on the Hudson River, in search of a new Metal Gear prototype. He’s assisted by Hal “Otacon” Emmerich, a scientist who worked on the original Metal Gear, whom Snake rescued during the events of MGS 1.
In short order, the tanker is seized by Russian commandoes, working with Revolver Ocelot, the lone terrorist to survive Shadow Moses. In what has become a hallmark of this series, complicated betrayals occur in rapid succession, and the tanker is sunk to the bottom of the river, seemingly with Snake aboard.
Two years later, a huge cleanup facility called “The Big Shell” has been created on the site to contain the environmental disaster. And–are you sensing a pattern here?–it’s been captured by a terrorist unit called “Dead Cell,” which has taken hostages, including the President of the United States, and is threatening to detonate a nuclear device. A new operative from Snake’s unit FOXHOUND, codenamed “Raiden,” is sent to defeat the terrorists and rescue the president.
I remember when this game came out, even though I didn’t play it, that this was a huge controversy. Fans were outraged that they were playing as the androgynous, awkward rookie Raiden instead of the grizzled, tough, high-testosterone action hero Solid Snake. Even reading the story in novel form, it’s still jarring to go from the stoic confidence of Snake to the amateurish bravado of Raiden. (By the way, the pronunciation of “Raiden” rhymes with the name of the 46th President of the United States, and not with “maiden” as I initially thought.)
Raiden is guided on his mission through communications with his commanding officer, a Colonel, and, bizarrely, Raiden’s girlfriend Rose, who insists on calling him “Jack.” This is also in keeping with MGS 1, where Snake was guided by a number of officers and intelligence analysts. But whereas they formed a coherent unit, the dynamic with Raiden, the Colonel, and Rose just feels… odd.
Speaking of odd things, the Dead Cell terrorists make the villains from the 1960s Batman series seem subtle and understated. They include a woman named Fortune, who is apparently immortal and only wishes to die, an obese explosives expert called… wait for it… “Fatman,” who wants to become notorious as the maddest bomber in history, and finally, an actual vampire.
While things are initially presented as realistic, and as in a Tom Clancy novel, great care is taken to ensure that the weapons and other military technologies feel authentic, the whole Big Shell is teeming with the surreal and the bizarre. It doesn’t take long for Raiden to start feeling like he’s living in a waking nightmare.
Adding to the strangeness, Snake and Otacon also show up to help him, despite the fact that Raiden has been told Snake is either (a) dead or (b) the leader of the terrorist group. This is a running theme in the story: everyone is lying all the time. Raiden is constantly being deceived by every person he talks to. Poor guy; at some point you have to feel sorry for him.
Remember when I said the universe of Metal Gear may strike you as weird? Guess what, ladies and gents: I haven’t gotten to the weird part yet!
Raiden eventually finds the President, who explains that the Big Shell is camouflage for a new Metal Gear, codenamed Arsenal Gear, being built under the water. POTUS had been hoping to seize control of Arsenal for himself, to use it as leverage against a group known as [ominous music plays] “The Patriots.”
Raiden asks who the Patriots are, and the President explains:
“The power controlling this country… Politics, the military, the economy – they control it all. They even choose who becomes President…
The Space Defense, income tax reduction and the National Missile Defense (NMD) programs -– every policy that’s been credited to me was actually done according to their instructions.”
“Wait a second. Space Defense was initiated by Congress!”
“That’s what the Patriots want the country to believe… It’s all a show. ‘Democracy’ is just a filler for textbooks!”
The President then outlines the Patriots’ intentions for Arsenal Gear:
“Arsenal Gear is more than just a military tool. It is a means to preserve the world as it is… The Arsenal plans include a system to digitally manage the flow of information, making it possible to shape the ‘truth’ for their own purposes. In short, the Arsenal system is the key to their supremacy.”
“Yes, the ‘GW’ system. Short for George Washington. GW is the Patriots’ trump card… once operational, it will be a completely new form of power for the Patriots to wield.”
The President explains he was going to bargain with the Patriots, but he was overruled by his predecessor, who is now the leader of the terrorists and is also yet another clone of the Snake brothers: this one named Solidus Snake, and he intends to seize Arsenal for himself and defeat the Patriots.
The President tells Raiden to find Emma Emmerich, Otacon’s sister, who is somewhere in the Big Shell, and who has created a computer virus that can destroy the GW system. Then he gets killed by Revolver Ocelot, leaving Raiden more befuddled than before.
Anyway, Raiden works with Solid Snake (not Solidus, who is seemingly the bad guy, remember) and eventually they find Emma and upload the virus. Unfortunately, at that point Raiden gets abandoned by Snake and a mysterious cyborg ninja, and captured by the terrorists.
I feel like I need to pause to catch my breath. I bet you do, too. You know, there’s an old webcomic that graphically shows the narrative structure of famous movies. You can see it here. Some of these are pretty involved, but can you even imagine what a graph like this for Metal Gear would look like? I’m not sure two dimensions is sufficient to render it. And let me be clear, I’m giving you just the bare-bones outline here. MGS is famous for deep dives into the backstories of even secondary characters. There are a couple in this one, Peter Stillman and Olga Gurlukovich, whom I haven’t even discussed but who are actually some of the most interesting people in the story.
By the way, this is where I should probably mention that, although the novel I’m reviewing here is by Raymond Benson, who is a respected author of spy thrillers, including some James Bond books, the fact is he largely just transcribed the dialogue and added some minimal description. When it comes to the labyrinthine plot of this thing, “one man deserves the credit, one man deserves the blame,” and Hideo Kojima is his name.
Kojima is, in my opinion, the ideal person to write techno-thrillers. He’s clearly obsessed with American action movies, references to which abound throughout his games, but at the same time he brings a very different perspective to the topic of American military technology, being as how he’s Japanese.
All right, have you got your second wind? Good, because it’s time to delve into the last act of Metal Gear Solid 2, and it is not merely a doozy, but, if I may be so bold, a real humdinger. The disturbing personal revelations and insane plot twists come thick and fast at this point.
Raiden is freed from a torture chamber that mimics a facility where Solid Snake was captured in MGS 1. Then he learns that the entire operation has been designed by the Patriots to replicate the Shadow Moses incident, in order to demonstrate that with proper psychological conditioning, anyone can be molded into a tough-as-nails super-soldier like Solid Snake. Not only that, but it is also revealed that Raiden was once a child soldier in an army under Solidus Snake’s command, although he repressed the memories.
(Say what you want about Solidus, but the guy has quite a CV: from fighting a civil war in Liberia to leading a terrorist organization, with a brief stint as U.S. President in between.)
Finally, Raiden discovers that the Colonel and Rose, with whom he’s been communicating throughout the mission, are actually merely AI constructs, generated from his own memories and expectations via the GW system. And since the system is now infected with a computer virus, the AI is beginning to talk nonsense to him, as in this (in)famous message from the Colonel:
I hear it’s amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork does a raw blink on Hara-Kiri Rock. I need scissors! 61!
Has anybody gotten ChatGPT to say this yet?
But, there’s no time for Raiden to grapple with all this now, because Solidus Snake and Ocelot are busy betraying each other while raising the Arsenal Gear from beneath the water and crashing it into downtown Manhattan. The book diverges a little from the game here: there’s no animation of the huge fortress crashing into the skyline in-game, because it was cut at the last minute. Remember, this came out in late 2001, so I bet you can guess why. But Benson does give a little description of the horror and devastation.
Of course, Raiden and Solidus are both still alive and standing in the wreckage. Solidus explains that he has done all this to try and liberate humanity from the digital censorship regime the Patriots are about to impose. And then Raiden gets another call from the Colonel and Rose.
This is the moment that made me decide I had to review this book. Not for nothing has this scene been called by some “the most profound moment in gaming history.” And for this reason, I’m going to ask that you watch the clip as it appears in the game. I don’t consider this “cheating,” because all this dialogue appears verbatim in the book, but I do feel the voice acting and sound effects add something here. This is quite simply required viewing. I promise, it’s worth thirteen minutes of your time:
In 2001, most of the buzz around MGS 2 was the outrage about Raiden replacing Snake. And if it wasn’t that, it was that the story was too damned strange and bizarre. I mean, I glossed over some of the weirder stuff, like a guy who is possessed by a dead man because he had an arm transplant from him, or the really creepy incestuous backstory involving Otacon and Emma. And did I mention the vampire also does flamenco dancing?
And so this moment at the climax, about AI controlling the flow of digital information to manipulate human thought, just seemed like yet more incomprehensible techno-babble in 2001.
But as the years have turned into decades and life has gone on in these United States, people have started to reevaluate this scene. Some of these lines, as they say, “hit different” now:
“Trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness… all this junk data, preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate.”
And even more pointedly:
“The untested truths, spun by different interests, continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems. Everyone withdraws into their own small gated communities, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever truth suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large. The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.”
To say nothing of the suggestion of inhuman intelligences gradually gaining control of society. Of all the fascinating lines in this dialogue, the one that intrigues me most is probably the one at the beginning:
“To begin with, we’re not what you’d call ‘human.’ Over the past two hundred years, a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House. It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago.”
Okay, hold up. In-universe, the events of Metal Gear Solid 2 were supposed to take place in 2009. Two hundred years before that puts us in the Madison administration. I don’t think even Kojima is prepared to claim there were AI supercomputers then, so what does this line mean?
Well, if you think about it, a government is actually a bit like an artificial intelligence. It is a series of processes, aimed at administering a population. Theoretically speaking, government as a process could be carried on with no independent thought at all, merely the “correct” application of laws and rules.
But when you put it that way, doesn’t it all sound rather inhuman? Well, there’s a reason Thomas Hobbes named his famous book on government after a legendary sea monster. Even before the computer age, there was a recognition that “the State” was something different than just a bunch of folks getting together to talk.
“The Colonel” then elaborates:
“We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often. How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.”
The Metal Gear wiki helpfully tells us that:
“This description was similar to the Japanese philosophical concept of kokutai or civic soul, which is derived from the mytho-political past of Japan, in which the Japanese emperor is held to be a direct genetic descendant of the sun goddess Amaretsu. This living presence of the soul of a nation has no precise analogue in Western culture, the closest match in American political language being ‘patriotic spirit’.”
Perhaps. But I think we’re all familiar with the idea of a national soul, a figure embodying the fabric of the country. What are Uncle Sam or John Bull, if not the soul of their respective nations? Does it matter that these characters don’t actually exist? In a way, if everyone believes in them, or rather what they represent, don’t they kind of exist? Then again, isn’t that pretty much what O’Brien tells Winston regarding Big Brother at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four? Hm.
See, there is certainly a lot to take in here. I mean to say, game dialogue came a long way since “our princess is in another castle,” what?
Inevitably, it all leads to a final fight with Solidus, which Raiden wins, and then Solid Snake gives a schmaltzy speech about how you are what you choose to be, your decisions make you who you are, and so on. I admit, everything after the last chat with the Colonel seems perfunctory to me.
Then again, how could it be otherwise? There are whole books’ worth of ideas in that scene. (If you want to read one, I recommend The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. And if you want a deep dive into Metal Gear Solid 2, I recommend this video.)
As a final note, I want to say I’m glad they did this novelization, because the story on its own is interesting enough to be worthwhile for non-gamers. In fact, I’d argue it’s a better story than it is a game. I actually own a copy of the special edition, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, which I got for ninety-nine cents at a used game store that has since been demolished. I’ve never been able to make it very far in the game.
Well, that’s that. If you want a mind-bending techno-thriller, see if you can get yourself a copy of this. If it all just made your head hurt, well, I can understand that, too. In any case…“sayonara, kid! Have a nice day.”