At some indeterminate date just over the horizon — far enough away from 2020 for the film “Fast & Furious 17” to have come and gone — virtual reality gaming has been perfected to such an extent that it offers an addictive experience wholly immersive for sight, sound and even touch (with all the cybersex possibilities that might entail). Our hero, 21-year-old John Chu, is a savvy digital native who spends almost every minute of his day online. He earns his living as a “sherpa,” a guide for newbies who wish to enter and enjoy such complex, competitive environments as Call to Wizardry. Helping John are three teammates: Anja, Ray and Jolene (each of them emerging as charmingly quirky individuals). A subsidiary member of John’s support group is his mother, who just happens to be a superspy working for the ultra-secret U.S. agency dubbed Zero Day. There used to be a fifth member of the Sherpa team, Darla. But she left in a huff, feeling betrayed, and now John lives in fear that she will use her gamer’s expertise to sabotage his life.
But for a moment, worries about Darla recede into the background, for John and crew have a new client, who wishes to be known simply as “Mr. Jones” (who has an assistant with the similarly commonplace alias of “Smith”). Smith and Jones offer John a mind-boggling $100,000 a week for his sherpa skills. Slightly leery, he accepts. Immediately thereafter appears Ms. Pang, with a counteroffer of twice as much to betray Jones. Unwittingly, John and Co. have landed in the middle of China and North Korea’s geopolitical feuding.
From here, it’s off onto various vividly described quests, each of which adds to the puzzle or provides a missing piece. John conducts his clients across a half-dozen virtual landscapes, with complications piling on, until finally he is forced to abandon his preferred digital life and engage with the real world — where getting killed does not lead to a resurrection.
Ruff presents his story in John’s first-person voice, and the creation of this engaging, engrossing persona is his first major achievement. With his keen mind and wide-ranging knowledge of the past, not to mention his unconventional upbringing, John emerges as a fully distinct and believable denizen of this future milieu. Neither cyber-saint nor hacker villain, he exhibits a distinct moral compass with just a little too much flexibility — the ethical laxness that precipitates all his troubles.
But John does not exist in a vacuum, and his relationships with his crew, with Darla, with his dad, and above all with his brilliant, ruthless mother, offer the reader a chance to savor a kind of well-done family drama.
Ruff’s second major victory is in making the reader care about virtual reality. Whenever a novel plunges too deeply into this kind of artificial turf, it risks losing the reader’s interest because of a lack of sensory grounding and the notion that when anything can happen, nothing matters. Ruff overcomes this by making his adventures fashioned from electrons and bytes read as authentically as any naturalism. It took me a while to realize that aside from John’s backstory, every scene of action occurred in cyberspace. This is true until more than 200 pages into the book, when John is forced to doff his goggles and gloves and confront the real players behind Smith, Jones and Pang. The unpredictable surprise of their identities will amuse and shock in a suspenseful climax where the tangibility of “meatspace” rivals but does not surpass the previous artificiality.
Ruff’s fast-flowing, fascinating narrative is full of amusing topical and pop culture referents without being overburdened by allusiveness. His witty, often snarky dialogue crackles, and every aspect of the gaming experience — which Ruff has been immersed in for 40 years — is sharply rendered and explicated.
Last year the global box office for films totaled roughly $41.7 billion dollars, while the gaming industry took in $152 billion. As for book publishing — don’t make me laugh! Any novel that can bridge these disparate worlds and appeal to gamers and literary fans alike is a treasure greater than the loot in a cyber-dragon’s cave.
Paul Di Filippo’s most recent novel is “The Deadly Kiss-Off.”
By Matt Ruff
Harper. 320 pp. $27.99