Vernor Vinge’s “True Names”

I read Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” last night, and what a read it was! Published in 1981, the story prefigures the Internet and the “true names” of its operators hidden by the disembodied near-anonymity of the virtual space known as the “Other Plane.” Merry prankster hackers come up against the Frankenstein monster creation neglected and forgotten by its Federal government funded researchers in a global network. The capacities for mischief and mayhem are acted out as two of the pranksters/hackers/warlocks/wizards do computer-mediated, real world effective battle for control of real life via its computer and database dependence.

As I was reading the novella, I was struck by two things. First, it felt like I was reading a story about being in a game world like World of Warcraft or Everquest had those things been melded with the daily practices of Internet usage (which can be partly true with the various add-ons for WoW). Also, the way he reduces complex operations, such as switching carrier lines or performing an action to protect himself (like a firewall or virtual private network) or probing another operator (port scan, denial of service attack, etc.), into gestures and realistic actions (like flying and navigating as a bird = charting communication networks).

Second, it is hard to imagine that this story was written in 1981! Furthermore, it, looking back from my personal experiences in the computer age, proves much more prophetic than Neuromancer (though both were overly optimistic regarding human-computer interfaces). TRON, released in 1982, seems to mediate between the worlds of “True Names” and Neuromancer.

I’m left wondering why so much more scholarship is written on Neuromancer than “True Names.” Is it because “True Names” didn’t achieve the circulation that Neuromancer did, or is it because it was too early to attract the attention that Neuromancer (and the cyberpunk authors) did?

If you haven’t read “True Names,” I cannot adequately stress how badly you should read it without burning out your EEG leads. Go read it, now.

You can find a copy online here.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Review, Science Fiction
5 comments on “Vernor Vinge’s “True Names”
  1. Andrew says:

    Did you, by chance, read the edition of this that was accompanied by a bunch of computer science types talking about how influential the story was? That has always seemed interesting.

    I’m always amazed at how little regard gets paid to Vernor Vinge, though. Esp. given how his stuff is really quite good (_Marooned In Realtime_ & _Rainbows End_ are both worth the effort). I’m trying to change that a little, as my paper at CCCC this year is going to deal with the teaching of technical communication and the transhuman singularity in _Rainbows End_.

    Having said that, I’ve read _Neuromancer_ probably 15 times while “True Names” has always set on my “should read someday” list. I may assign “True Names” if I get to teach SF again, as I’ve wanted to add some Vinge to my class, so I’m glad to see that it’s available for free (I try to make my classes as inexpensive as possible).

  2. Andrew says:

    Also, I think your point about the cool factor of cyberpunk and the popularity of _Neuromancer_ is spot-on.

  3. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Andrew,

    I did read “True Names” in the collection that you’re talking about, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to read any of the scholarship. I requested the book through ILL just so I could read the story (before I found it online). The collection looks good, but it does have a rehabilitation feel to it, which I don’t think is a necessarily bad thing–folks do need to know about this story.

    A buddy of mine in Luxembourg and you have both recommended Vinge’s Rainbows End, but I wasn’t able to really get into it. Perhaps it’s because I read it around the time when I was doing hand-to-hand combat with our department’s multimodal folk–it was just too much.

    That’s great that you’re trying to provide your classes at the lowest cost possible to your students. You should probably save a copy of “True Names” from that link that I gave, because it is an archive.org cached copy of someone’s comcast.net home folder. Who knows how long it will be available. It also includes the afterword by Marvin Minsky.

    Jason

  4. […] on Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” for a book review by Jason W. Ellis of the Science Fiction Research […]

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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