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True Names by Vernor Vinge

True Names (1981)

by Vernor Vinge

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A fine little cyberpunk story, though pretty by-the-numbers by today's standards. Vinge gives us a story of a virtual-reality version of the internet that is similar to the Sprawl and the Metaverse, though with a slightly different interface and rationale. In practice, it's not all that different though, there's a bit too much time spent on explaining the technical side of how it works, and the time spent in the fantasy-esque virtual world doesn't add all that much. However, the concern with anonymity among a group of internet vandals, far more tech-savvy than the government that tries to stop them, is very well done and still interesting and relevant today. The later part of the story, where access to information allows the protagonists to essentially gain godhood, portrays human consciousness in a way that is not that uncommon but still always bothers me and always rings untrue. The ending lifts the story a bit by again focusing on anonymity and what that means. Overall this is definitely not a story to knock your socks off, but if you're looking for an early cyberpunk story this will do nicely. ( )
  BayardUS | Jan 10, 2016 |
My reactions to reading this short novel in 1991. Spoilers follow.

Norman Spinrad said this is the grandfather of cyberpunk. The imagery of Vinge is of the heroic fantasy, though, not that of the spy novel or the crime genres which William Gibson used in his Sprawl novels.

This is quite explicit in the novel's first paragraph where the magician of the First Age of Magic -- implying the novel takes place in the Second Age of Magic -- concern over protecting his True Name is repeated in the computer hacker's concern over his true identity which, as the novel's protagonist Roger Pollack aka Mr. Slippery finds out, can put him in thrall to the Great Enemy, the repressive bureaucracy of the United States government. However, even though the low-life element of cyberpunk's "high-tech, low-life" is missing (all the computer magicians in the Coven whose identity we know are middle-class types) the high-tech element is very much the same. The hackers use EEG devices for I/O computer devices much like the decks the cowboys use in Gibson's works.

Both Vinge and Gibson picture a world where data and programs are represented iconographically. This is Gibson's "cyberspace"; Vinge calls it the Other Plane. While Gibson's cyberspace has hulking, abstract cityscapes representing data, hulking masses for ICE (intrusion counter electronics) and menacing shapes of computer viruses, Vinge's other plane is much more of what Gibson called a "consensual hallucination". His baroque Other Plane is a fantasy type world of wizards and monsters. (One of the neater touches in this novel is the fire-breathing dragon in his asbestos Alan Turing t-shirt who guards the Coven's castle.).

Both Vinge and Gibson have artificial personality simulators and artificial intelligences but this can come from sf imagery without any real scientific influence though Debby Charteris wishing to use the kernal of programming that started the Mailman to preserve herself in the Other Plane seems a bit unique (and, if memory serves me correct, shows up as a concept in Gibson's work).

As expected, Vinge is more sophisticated. Most of the government and mainstream lags behind in technological conservatism while the military research arms and the National Security Agency work on the cutting edge. (Vinge clearly recognizes the NSA's influence on computer development and mentions the computer encryption controversy with the NSA of the late '70s.) While Michaelmas in Algis Budrys' eponymous novel has, as David Pringle pointed out in his 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, an almost god-like omniscience -- conveyed second-hand through Domino due to his data access, Pollack and Charteris god-like transcendence is described in mythical imagery.

They nobly renounce their power. Vinge seems to have faith in common humanity -- I suspect he is a bit of a libertarian anarchist given his interest in anarchy that he said led to his “Conquest by Default” and the tyranny of scientists in his The Peace War when they attempt domination in the name of peace. In this novel the Slimey Limey seems to herald the eventual end of the repressive bureaucracy. However, its repression is never shown much though -- apart from granting computer user licenses -- just talked about by hackers.

Vinge doesn’t have a lot of flab in this story and comes up with some neat plot twists. One -- the story’s red herring, the idea of an extraterrasterrial intelligence more advanced in information processing covertly subverting our world preparatory to setting up a fiefdom would make a great story. The other good twist was having the Mailman being truly sentient -- but a few seconds of self-awareness taking hours of processing time hence his disguise as an old time mailman. The transcendent scenes of this novel clearly pre-figure the Singularity of Vinge’s later works (a concept, despite Vinge not being a big sf name in terms of sales, that has been picked up by many sf writers).

A few plot twists: I find it hard to believe that the Army team sent to kill Pollack would be told to ignore any further orders due to possible misinformation via Pollack’s control of the information network but still trust orbit-fed, computer derived maps; Second, I find it implausible that detonating three nuclear warheads in Utah (mention is made of missiles detonating in the Midwest silos but it’s unclear if this is their warheads or fuels) could be passed off as just serious computer vandalism by the government. There are some interesting bits in the periphery of Vinge’s world: the electronic newspapers, coups and government manipulation via computerized sabotage of government computer networld and automated decision programs, Finger of God anti-satellite system, and processing centers in satellites. ( )
  RandyStafford | Nov 8, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312944446, Paperback)

A study of True Names, Vernor Vinge's critically acclaimed novella that invented the concept of cyberspace, features that complete text of the novella, as well as articles by Richard Stallman, John Markoff, Hans Moravec, Patricia Maes, Timothy May, and other cyberspace pioneers. Original.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:05 -0400)

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