Thursday, June 18, 2020

Book Review: "88 Names"

HARPERCOLLINS/Harper – @HarperCollins

[This review was originally posted on Patreon.]

AUTHOR: Matt Ruff – @bymattruff
ISBN: 978-0-06-285467-4; hardcover (March 17, 2020)
320pp, B&W, $27.99 U.S.

88 Names is a 2020 comedy, science fiction, and mystery novel from award-winning novelist, Matt Ruff (Lovecraft Country).  88 Names is an immersive virtual reality story, part cyber-mystery-thriller and part near-future speculation, set in a world in which identities can be worn and changed like clothing and things are not necessarily what they appear to be.

The lead character of 88 Names is John Chu, a “sherpa.”  As a “sherpa,” John is paid to guide players into the world of “massive multiplayer online role-playing games or “MMORPGs.”  The difference is that this online world is not the version we know today in the real world, but is instead a near-future, advanced VR (virtual-reality) version of online gaming.

The game in which John is most likely to guide players is the popular “Call to Wizardry.”  For a fee, John and his crew:  Jolene, Ray, and Anya, will provide players with a top-flight character, equipped with the best weapons and armor.  They will take players dragon-slaying in the “Realms of Asgarth,” hunting rogue starships in the Alpha Sector, or battling hordes of undead in a zombie apocalypse.

Chu’s newest client is the pseudonymous “Mr. Jones,” who claims to be a “wealthy, famous person” with powerful enemies.  Mr. Jones is offering John a ridiculous amount of money for a comprehensive tour of the world of MMORPGS because they “may have applications beyond the realm of mere entertainment” and such applications are “relevant” to Mr. Jones' profession... or so he says.

For John, this is a dream assignment, mainly because of the money.  As Mr. Jones' tour of online gaming gets underway, John begins to suspect that “Mr. Jones” is really North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.  John also has to worry about “Ms. Pang,” an interloper in John's contract with Mr. Jones, and she may or may not be an agent of the People’s Republic of China.  As John's whirlwind online adventure with Mr. Jones eventually spills over into the real world, he must be more savvy than he has ever been.  Lives are at stake, and unlike the gaming world, the real world does not have a reset button.

THE LOWDOWN:  Matt Ruff's 2016 novel, Lovecraft Country, is one of my all-time favorite books.  Not only is it a brilliant fantasy novel, but it so captures the existential threat that America often is to African-Americans that one might assume that Matt Ruff is an African-American writer.  He is not, but that did not stop readers from being enthralled by Ruff and the “black magic” he weaved in that amazing great American novel.

While I was reading 88 Names, I found that it had elements that reminded me of a number of works of fiction that dealt with altered realities and VR.  That includes author William Gibson's landmark 1984 novel, Neuromancer; Christopher Nolan's 2010 film, Inception; Douglas Trumbull's 1983 film, Brainstorm; Alfred Bester's 1953 novel, The Demolished Man; David Cronenberg's 1999 film, eXistenZ; and maybe the film, Tron (1982).

I don't know if there is anything new or interesting about virtual-reality / VR that Ruff introduces in 88 Names.  I don't engage enough VR fiction to know.  In fact, the identity of the villain behind the machinations of “Mr. Jones” is pretty obvious early one, if for no other reason than the fact that John Chu suspects this person from the very beginning.

Thus, the fun I found in reading 88 Names came from John Chu.  Like the best novelists, Ruff has a gift for creating superb lead characters that grab the reader's interest.  Chu “takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin,” and, as I see it, he is open to the myriad possibilities of both the world real and VR, even if he can be occasionally clueless.  John is a guy I could follow from one novel to the next.  This novel's title, “88 Names,” apparently comes from the number of online identities that John has created, so he could be someone else in one of Ruff's upcoming novels, if he hasn't already appeared in an earlier Ruffian work of fiction.

Truthfully, I think that the audience for 88 Names is limited to two groups of people.  First are those readers interested in stories about living and playing in VR worlds.  The second group is composed of people who either are already fans of Matt Ruff or are just discovering him.  I fall in the latter category, and although I don't think 88 Names is a great novel, I will unashamedly recommend it to those readers looking for authors who aggressively demand a lot of their readers' imaginations.

POSSIBLE AUDIENCE:  Readers looking for works by visionary authors will want 88 Names.

7 out of 10

Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux a.k.a. "I Reads You"

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