Vernor Vinge: True Names

When “True Names” was first published in 1981 home computing was just in its infancy. Whilst the BBC tried to educate the public how to load BASIC programmes from cassettes Vernor Vinge presented us with a fully developed vision of cyberspace. Preceding Gibson‘s “Neuromancer” (1984) and Stephenson‘s “Snow Crash” (1991) it was one of the earliest cyberpunk novels.

The Other Plane — Vinge’s equivalent to The Matrix and the Metaverse — is a world-wide information network incorporating and grown on top of the older ARPANET — much like the internet actually did. All kinds of government services are accessible through this network, especially wellfare. Vandals / warlocks exploit these services by manipulating the software that has widely replaced written records, laws and conventional governmental administration. However, they must hide their true names — hence the title — and keep a low profile in real life or else the government (“feds”) will track them down. Remarkable is also the advanced interface used to access the net — EEG like equipment permitting a very direct form of input/output. Procedural programming is also replaced by much easier and interactive EEG programming.

“True Names” contains some of the most concise and spot on metaphores for experiences often hard to relay to those who have not felt them: the machine / network truely being an extension of ones body / person, the difference between processing time and real time, or the relative ease of using a language with a higher level of abstraction compared to low-level programming. Astonishing is also how well the effects of limited bandwidth, caching, interpolation, and the time needed for the signal to travel are woven into the story. The way data storage and processing facilities are available in the story reminds me of and goes beyond some of the most advanced concepts of grid computing or the Plan 9 operating system.

On top of that the story is good as well. An avatar in the form of a teletype (!) called the Mailman because of the long delays of his responses… But best read yourself. “True Names” is a pioneering work of the cyberpunk genre and still very clever and thought-provoking. In 1981 it must have looked more radical than the stealth bomber that incidentaly flew the first time that year.

Vernor Vinge: True Names. In: Marvin Minsky (Ed.): True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. Tor Books. January 2002. ISBN 0312862075.

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