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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


88 Names

Matt Ruff

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To purchase 88 Names

Title: 88 Names
Author: Matt Ruff
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 300 pages
Availability: 88 Names - US
88 Names - UK
88 Names - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : simple but good fun; enjoyable deep-dive into online gaming and beyond

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Locus . 3/2020 Ian Mond
Publishers Weekly . 25/11/2019 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The many pop culture SF references make this adventure pure geek gold." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       88 Names is set in the near future (or maybe not so near: it's been at least eight years since a woman became president of the United States), with most of the activity taking place online. The narrator runs a sherpa-business -- as in providing, for a fee, support and guiding players through massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), specifically: "allowing them to experience high-level game content that would otherwise require hundreds of hours to reach". In the novel's opening chapter he loses two of his many, many online aliases -- leaving him with the 88 names of the title. The real-world name he goes by is John Chu, though even that's not his actual name (his legal name is Conway, rather than Chu).
       John has a crew he works with, three other people whom he has never met in person and only knows online. He's been able to piece together a bit more about two of them: Anja is a former gymnast in Argentina who is paralyzed, while Jolene is an IT specialist for a law firm in Colorado. The other, Ray, apparently lives in California, but that's about all John has been able to figure out. And, for a while, he had someone else working for him, the very independent-minded and risk-loving Darla, but he pissed her off, badly, and she cut him off, some two and a half months earlier.
       John's Sherpa, Inc. specializes in Call to Wizardry, "the most successful MMORPG in history", and a recent profile of him as: "John Chu, Sherpa to the Stars" in People means that business is pretty good and he is attracting a high-paying clientele. He gets more than he bargained for when he is approached -- online, of course -- by a Mr.Smith, on behalf of a Mr.Jones, who wants to take a guided deep-dive into the world of MMORPGs:

Mr.Jones believes that the design philosophy of massive multiplayer online role-playing games may have applications beyond the realm of mere entertainment.
       The money on offer is too good to pass up, so, despite some rather problematic conditions, John can't resist accepting the job; he also ropes his team into playing along, even if he is not entirely forthright with all of them about what is going on. He has some doubts about Mr.Jones -- specifically, he's still paranoid about Darla seeking vengeance -- but the first installment of money shows up in his account and that does a lot to allay his concerns.
       Putting what few pieces he can together, especially after their initial interactions, John can't help but suspect that Mr.Jones might be a high-ranking North Korean -- maybe even the Supreme Leader himself ..... Among the reasons: Mr.Jones is very concerned about protecting his identity, and worried about enemies -- and immediately after agreeing to play along John is contacted by an computer-(very-)savvy person -- with a Chinese woman avatar -- who expresses considerable interest in Mr.Jones and his activities.
       John does have an ace in the hole -- his mom. She is part of the "Zero Day" team, a part of the American federal government's Cyber Command, and she has incredible resources at her disposal.
       For much of the novel, 88 Names essentially takes place in virtual reality. Practically all of John's interactions are online -- even when he contacts his mother. Aside from Anja, tied to her bed in Argentina, he also basically has very little idea about the locations or identities of most of those he is dealing with. As the man of eighty-eight identities knows, identity, in particular, is hard to pin down, easily (re)shaped by the information one makes available online and the ability to choose what one's avatar looks like -- how one presents in (online) public -- and, especially, the ability to easily change that.
       John's attempts to stay in control, and to figure out who Mr. Jones is, move the novel forward nicely, his game-playing expertise and online-confidence constantly confronted by a neat variety of hurdles, both expected and novel. Flashbacks to the tumultuous brief relationship with Darla -- whom John is both attracted to and a little bit overwhelmed by -- and a variety of online expeditions (extending to a sidebar on virtual reality sex) also make for decent entertainment. Eventually, of course, things come to a head, online and off converging and the stakes becoming much higher -- though once flushed into the open the adventure becomes a bit more familiar-pedestrian, complete with the surprising expertise of new players on the scene (and mom's firepower ensuring the inevitable outcome).
       88 Names is at its best in the depths of the online world, especially at the periphery of the games, the characters interacting and sounding each other out in a virtual world that allows them considerably more flexibility than real-world face-to-face interactions do. Ruff does the technology and gaming well, complete with the bits of technology that play a role in the final big encounter -- down to nanny-cams and Faraday cage-equipped limousines ..... The games of cat and mouse in the novel are also, of course, games of identity and the choices people make, in how to present themselves and how they want to play with others -- the online world allowing for a much greater range than the rather less mutable real world. It is quite entertaining, though the resolution feels a bit pat and simple, a status quo reality rather easily recovered; one wishes Ruff had had more of Darla's balls in where he went with the story.
       Quite immersed in the online, especially gaming -- i.e. fair warning to those who aren't: quite 'geeky' (but with enough hand-holding guidance -- that's what John does, after all -- to lead neophytes reasonably comfortably along) --, 88 Names is a breezy, fine fun read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 March 2020

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88 Names: Reviews: Matt Ruff: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Matt Ruff was born in 1965.

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© 2020 the complete review

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