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.