88 Names by Matt Ruff

88 Names

by Matt Ruff

  • Genre: Cyberthriller
  • Publisher: Harper
  • Length: 320 pages
  • Available: March 17, 2020

About the Author: Matt Ruff was born in New York City in 1965. He is the author of seven novels, including Fool on the Hill, Bad Monkeys, Set This House in Order, The Mirage, and Sewer, Gas & Electric. His 2016 novel Lovecraft Country is being developed as an HBO series by Jordan Peele, Misha Green, and J.J. Abrams.

Summary: 88 Names, the upcoming cyberthriller from Lovecraft Country author Matt Ruff, follows videogame “sherpa” John Chu and his loyal crew of gamers-for-hire as they traverse the virtual world of Call to Wizardry, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) made popular, and profitable, with the advancement of hyper-realistic VR technology.  John’s business is taking off, but the success breeds unwanted attention, especially from the EULA police, online griefers, and Darla, his volatile ex-girlfriend. For John, though, it’s all in a day’s work—that is, until a mysterious client shows up with a job offer that seems too good to be true.  Will this gig prove to be his ticket to easy street? Or has John stumbled into a geopolitical dogfight with potentially lethal repercussions? It’ll take all of his expertise, both in-game and IRL, if he hopes to solve the puzzle before it’s GAME OVER.

On the surface, 88 Names may seem like a direct response to the success of Ernest Cline’s wildly popular Ready Player One—which in turn borrowed heavily from William Gibson’s touchstone predecessor Neuromancer, not to mention Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash—but a cosmetic similarity is where the comparison of these two cyberthrillers ends, leaving Ruff’s work standing on its own two feet with its strong voice, believable characters, and welcomed attention to story over novelty.

The digital landscape may feel familiar, especially with its focus on video game themes, but while other authors use this motif as a backdrop, Ruff uses it as a lens, allowing us a deeper, more edifying look into the complex world of online culture, politics, and relationships—most notably how the online gaming community has become a regressive playground for anonymous racism, intolerance, and toxic masculinity.  This reality check comes with more than a few cringe-worthy moments, but, instead of showcasing these backward antics simply to shock, or even normalize, Ruff uses them to illuminate what has long been an extremely alarming issue within the online gaming community.  

To any readers who have not spent any previous time within the self-contained world of an MMO, some of the themes and terminology used in this novel may feel very foreign—even despite the clever, and very useful, glossary of terms that introduce the chapters—but this fact rarely pulls away from the fundamental elements that make this story, at its heart, a successful thriller.  Add to this a sharp, narrative wit, a cast of unique and rootable characters, an intriguing mystery, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and 88 Names becomes a title any fan of speculative fiction would be bereft to miss.

Verdict:

88 Names may not offer a new premise, but its singular execution marks it as a standout read within a sea of lazy sci-fi and nostalgic, nerd culture pandering.  Ruff may have already made a name for himself within the world of speculative fiction with the hit Lovecraft Country, but this smart, relevant, and often funny cyberthriller cements him in as one of the top authors out there today.

Joe Buckler

Blind Corner Reviews

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