“88 Names” by Matt Ruff— Fluid Identities

Ruff, Matt. “88 Names: A Novel”, Harper, 2020.

Fluid Identities

Amos Lassen

Matt Ruff’s “88 Names” is part cyberthriller, part twisted romantic comedy that takes us to a world where identity is fluid and nothing can be taken at face value.

John Chu, a “sherpa” (a paid guide to online role-playing games like the popular Call to Wizardry) who, along with his crew, provides others top-flight characters equipped with the best weapons and armor, and take you dragon-slaying in the Realms of Asgarth, hunting rogue starships in the Alpha Sector, or battling hordes of undead in the zombie apocalypse.

Chu has a new client, the pseudonymous Mr. Jones, who claims to be a “wealthy, famous person” with powerful enemies, has offered a ridiculous amount of money for a comprehensive tour of the world of virtual-reality gaming. Chu sees this as a dream assignment, but as the tour gets underway, he begins to suspect that Mr. Jones is really North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose interest in VR gaming has more to do with power than entertainment. Chu also has to worry about “Ms. Pang,” who may or may not be an agent of the People’s Republic of China, and his angry ex-girlfriend, Darla Jean Covington, who has her own plans for revenge.

Beginning as a whirlwind online adventure, things spill over into the real world and Chu must use every trick and resource at his disposal to stay one step ahead. In reality things cannot be reset.

I did not think that this book would hold my interest since I am not a gamer but I was completely wrong. I was pulled in from the beginning. Writer Ruff has created a large cast of diverse characters through which he brings historical facts alongside of pop culture. Everything here is historically accurate and possible. Ruff gives us a look at what he thinks the next generation will be like and it is frightening.

Ruff is excellent at writing marginalized folks of all kinds including women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ folks— they always feel like complete people who are neither just details of marginalization. 

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