88 Names: A Novel
Matt Ruff’s novels are an eclectic tour through contemporary speculative fiction and horror. Ruff has a real affinity for identifying crucial culture influences and shaping stories around them. His novel Lovecraft Country (2016) fused the problematically racist but increasingly popular aesthetics of H. P. Lovecraft with the mid-20th century driving guides for black American motorists (Green Books), exploring complex ideas of threat and safety.
88 Names is a less political, and perhaps less thoughtful follow up. It takes place in the unspecified near future, where John Chu works as a “sherpa,” creating high-level video game experiences for paying clients, many of whom he secretly despises: “The client is an idiot.
“His name is Brad Strong, and in real life he works as a commodities trader at one of those big Wall Street banks that’s always implicated, but never held accountable, when the economy crashes. . . . He hates fat chicks, libtards, and people who won’t shut up about their kids.”
Sherpas are paid guides “in a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Sherpas provide their clients with playable characters, equipment, and skilled teammates, allowing them to experience high-level game content that would otherwise require hundreds of hours to reach.”
This work is moderately lucrative, but against most games’ policies, so if John’s team is caught, their play-character and the associated accounts are destroyed. Following a series of bad luck, John Chu finds himself down to the titular 88 names and in need of a new client.
The new client who arrives is both a gift and (maybe) a threat. “Mr. Jones” arrives, declaring that money is no concern, and demands to be shown “the full potential of the medium.” He appears to have no knowledge of internet or video game culture, needing even the most basic concepts explained to him, but desires to know everything. He lays out absurd amounts of money. He might be a dream client, but John wonders whether Mr. Jones isn’t secretly Kim Jong Un, dictator of North Korea.
John turns to his mother, a military intelligence specialist working for Zero Day, an anti-terrorism task force. His mother is an enigmatic character, able to find information that others can’t but reluctant to share it, determined to make John reason questions out for himself as if he’s much younger than he is. That early consultation is a potentially telling scene, a reminder that John knows less than he thinks he does, that his judgement can be disrupted by small details, but it also reminds the reader of how little it’s possible to really judge a complex digital situation without massive informational resources. Making decisions is, ultimately, guesswork, and potentially very dangerous.
At its best, 88 Names is a romp through different video game scenarios and cultures in a more highly developed sensory framework than presently exists. Ruff’s accounts of space battles and South American bank robberies are exciting without being terrifying. All that’s lost, in the event of catastrophe, is an account. Time becomes time wasted, but no lives are lost.
This balance between high stakes and low stakes ultimately undermines Ruff’s new novel. There’s great potential within it for an exploration of how we emotionally invest and commit hundreds of hours to imaginary worlds. The novel’s exploration of the future of cybersex as provocation and violence is potentially fascinating but ultimately incomplete. Likewise, the question of what a reclusive dictator might possibly want with expansive knowledge of video games doesn’t have a satisfying answer.
The real key to the novel is the absurdity. Life or death situations have time-wasting as their flipside. The characters could challenge this, or come to understand it fully, but ultimately they do neither. In many ways, Ruff has obviously modelled 88 Names on the novels of William Gibson, but he doesn’t have Gibson’s knack for deep characterization, nor his talent for obfuscating the book’s lack of destination. 88 Names needs either an elegant destination or an upgrade in style to move from reasonably good entertainment to smart, subversive science fiction.