The Big Idea: Matt Ruff
In virtual reality, you can be anyone you want. But what happens when the headsets come off, and you’re faced with real world threats? Author Matt Ruff explores this idea of curating a persona in VR in his newest novel, 88 Names.
Like my previous novel, Lovecraft Country, 88 Names started out as a TV series pitch. The idea was to create a near-future thriller set entirely in virtual reality, so that you would never see the characters as they actually looked and sounded, but only as they chose to present themselves. In effect, everyone would be an unreliable narrator, at least as far as their identity was concerned. With instantaneous machine translation, they could pretend to be a native speaker of a language they’d never studied, and a process called ‘faceting’ would even allow them to present different versions of themselves to different observers simultaneously. (You think I’m listening politely as you lay out your twelve-point political theory, but my friend, granted access to a more privileged POV, can see me roll my eyes and say, “Please just kill me now.”)
88 Names’ protagonist, John Chu, is a “sherpa” — a freelance guide to massive multiplayer online role-playing games. For a fee, he’ll cater an adventure in the virtual game world of your choice, providing you with a ready-made high-level character with cool weapons and armor and a team of skilled playmates to show you the ropes. Chu’s business has fallen on hard times due to recent raids by the EULA police (in-game enforcers of the End-User License Agreement, which prohibits the use of sherpas). But he gets a chance to turn things around when he’s contacted by the pseudonymous Mr. Jones, who claims to be a “wealthy, famous person with powerful enemies.” Jones is offering $100,000 a week for a comprehensive tour of the world of VR gaming. This sounds too good to be true, but the money is real, so Chu takes the gig. But as the tour gets underway, he begins to suspect that Mr. Jones is actually North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose interest in virtual reality has more to do with power than entertainment.
Jones provides the story’s central mystery, but he’s not the only character Chu has questions about. Most of his relationships are with people he’s never met face-to-face, and even if you know someone’s real name, you can only trust Google so far. Whether he’s talking to clients or coworkers, Chu is constantly playing profiler, trying to get a better sense of who he’s dealing with and what they want.
This guessing game extends to his ex-girlfriend, Darla Jean Covington. In 88 Names, crowdfunded advances in cybersex technology have made it easier than ever to have an intimate relationship with someone you’ve never met. Chu and Darla had talked about getting together in person someday, but before that could happen, he did her wrong and she stormed off, vowing revenge. So in addition to worrying about North Korean assassins and possible Chinese spies, he has to keep an eye out for Darla. There’s a lot he still doesn’t know about her, but she’s definitely someone who means it when she says you’re going to be sorry.
The majority of the story takes place online, with virtual game worlds providing the backdrop for most of the novel’s action set pieces. Readers who are gamers should eat this up, but I wanted 88 Names to be accessible to people who have never touched a joystick or controller. In his role as a guide, John Chu tells you everything you need to know, and even in the most whiz-bang moments, the narrative stays focused on the characters and their relationships: During an apocalyptic space battle, Chu manipulates the game mechanics to trick Mr. Jones into revealing information about himself, and a virtual crime spree becomes a means for testing another character’s trustworthiness.
To raise the stakes for the novel’s climax, I decided to bring the characters out into the real world. In 88 Names’ final chapters, the digital masks come off and the players converge on the headquarters of their favorite game company for one last round of cat and mouse. This time, the dangers are real, and there’s no handy reset button to undo mistakes.
88 Names was a blast to write, but working on it has reminded me how, when you create imaginary futures, the present inevitably catches up to you. When I started thinking about this story in the early 2000s, social media was still in its infancy, and online gaming was a relative niche hobby. By the time I began writing in 2016, Facebook and Twitter had become dominant cultural forces, and the Trump presidency made it seem, at times, as if the entire country had become trapped in an online role-playing game. Now, after a year in which my social and professional lives have been conducted entirely through a computer screen, my novel feels more like realism than science fiction. I still think it’s a lot of fun, though, and I hope you’ll think so too.
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If you’d like to hear more about the ideas behind 88 Names, come check out the 88 Names podcast, where my co-host Blake Collier and I interview such luminaries as game designer Mike Pondsmith, VR technologist Mariana Acuña Acosta, and novelist Cory Doctorow.