True Names (1981) by Vernor Vinge

Don't miss out on other works by Vernor Vinge:
Marooned in Realtime (1986) Book Review
Available works by Vernor Vinge


Published more than a decade before the internet started to have an impact on people’s lives, True Names is a truly visionary work that paved the way for the at the time nascent Cyberpunk movement, drawing up the battle lines between technocratic surveillance and individual freedom. Vinge’s work has had a lasting influence on Silicon Valley, not least among the more anarchic advocates of cryptography, cryptocurrency, and dark webs.

True Names traces the action of a group of hackers called warlocks, who busy themselves breaking into government and private computers around the world. All this take place in a virtual reality space called the Other Plane, where revealing one’s identity – one’s ‘true name’ – can lead to arrest or worse. When warlock Mr Slippery has his true name revealed, the government forces him to help track down a notorious warlock who goes by the name of Mailman, responsible for large-scale data breaches and subsuming large chunks of data processing power. A series of battles ensue in both the virtual and real world, bringing down the economy in the process, and from first suspecting that Mailman is of extraterrestrial origin – given its immense power and ability to replicate itself – it is only at the end of the story that Mr Slippery learns that the Mailman is a National Security Agency research project gone rogue.

In True Names Vinge envisions an Orwellian scenario where technology is used by the elites to control the masses, a dystopian trope adopted by the Cyberpunk movement. At the same time, Vinge’s warlocks – hacking into government departments, euphorically sifting through data at amazing speed – became a template for Cyberpunk’s console cowboy. It is this euphoric empowerment of the individual that came to influence the more anarchic elements of Silicon Valley. That Vinge’s Other Plane is clearly inspired by Dungeons and Dragons – fleshing out the idea that only the imagination stands in the way of how how data is visualised in a virtual world – has only added to his popular appeal. So it is perhaps no surprise that about a decade later activist Timothy C. May paid homage to Vinge in his influential Crypto Anarchist Manifesto (1988):

“A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy. Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other.”

In other words, cryptography empowers people and undermines state and corporate control. May’s manifesto introduced the basic principles of crypto-anarchism: encrypted exchanges ensuring anonymity, freedom of speech, and freedom of trade. In today’s world crypto anarchism is very much alive in crypto currency circles, the idea being that a currency generated and anonymously secured by peer-to-peer networked devices outside of the banking system unshackles the individual.

In 1993 Vinge delivered a speech at the Department of Mathematical Sciences, San Diego State University, titled The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human. His opening words were:

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

With the Mailman’s powers spiraling out of control, a theme Vinge further developed in Marooned in Realtime (1986), Vinge is generally credited with being the first to develop the concept of the AI-driven singularity. While the dangers of a technological singularity were to become major themes in much Cyberpunk literature as well as in Postmodern space opera, it is also integral to today’s public discourse on AI, as evidenced by Oxford University scholar Nick Bostrom’s hugely influential non-fiction book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014).