- "...once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful."
"True Names" is an influential 1981 Science Fiction Novella by Vernor Vinge about computer hackers who regularly meet in an open-ended on-line game called "The Other Plane". The hackers must keep their True Names—their "real world" identities—hidden, like wizards of lore, both to avoid detection by law enforcement ("the Great Enemy"), and to protect themselves from being hacked or blackmailed by others in the game.
The story starts when Mr. Slippery, a member of an elite hacker SIGnote called the Coven, is visited by Federal agents, who know his True Name. But they don't want to arrest him—they're after a much bigger threat, and they want his help. They need to find a hacker known only as "The Mailman". When he returns to The Other Plane to begin his investigation, he's approached by Erythrina the Red Witch, one of the senior members of The Cabal, who is also worried about The Mailman, and would like his help. Together, Mr. Slippery and Erythrina begin a very dangerous investigation.
The story presaged ideas that later became staples of the not-yet-born Cyberpunk genre, like Cyberspace and Digital Avatars. But while it was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, it remained a bit of a cult classic, and credit for many of its ideas are often mistakenly attributed to later but better-known works by William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.
It was first collected in True Names...and Other Dangers. It was later republished, along with a series of non-fiction essays about the ideas in the story, written by various authors and industry experts, in True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier.
This work provides examples of:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Discussed as one possible explanation for The Mailman's peculiar methods of communication with The Other Plane, and other eccentricities. See also Alien Invasion below.
- Alien Invasion: Discussed as one possible explanation for The Mailman's peculiar methods of communication with The Other Plane, especially the time-lag. See also A.I. Is a Crapshoot above.
- Blackmail: A major danger of having your True Name discovered by another player is that you can be blackmailed with the threat of releasing your identity to The Great Enemy (the cops). To keep the proper game atmosphere, this is referred to as being "in thrall" to another player.
- Capital Letters Are Magic: Used frequently for things like True Name (a real world identity), The Great Enemy (the cops), and The True Death (the actual death of a player, rather than his character).
- Cyberspace: One of the earliest, and still one of the most realistic versions. Complete with travel time. All justified, as it's part of the game.
- Digital Avatar: All the game players have them. Most are fairly human, but the "werebots" go for more creative possibilities.
- Dueling Hackers: The climax, with Mr. Slippery and Erythrina fighting the Big Bad for control of the world's computer systems, including missile launch codes and military satellites.
- Familiar: The "wizards" of The Other Plane often have specialized programs that they cause to appear in animal form, which they refer to as their familiars. When Virginia, the federal officer in charge of Mr. Slippery's case, meets up with him in frog form on The Other Plane, she pretends to be his familiar.
- A God Am I: When Mr. Slippery and Erythrina forcibly multiplex their consciousness, it gives them the power to take over more machines almost without thinking. Repeat until they (and the Big Bad) have total control over and knowledge of anything connected to any computer ever. The Big Bad detonates several nukes in their silos to make a point in discussion, and it's not a big deal to any of them. At one point, Mr. Slippery is frustrating and rerouting the soldiers sent to kill his real body as a side process while concentrating on something different.
- Hacker Collective: The Mailman initially seems to be trying to recruit other members of the Coven into a collective so they can tackle hacks they wouldn't dare try on their own.
- I Know Your True Name: The work is named for the trope, although it's about a modern, computer-age version rather than the classic magical version.
- Inside a Computer System: Most of the action of the story takes place on The Other Plane.
- Just Like Robin Hood: How some members of the Cabal like to view themselves. One even uses Robin Hood as his Nym. How accurate this self-assessment is may be subject to question, but there's no question that some of them play with the trope.
- Kill Sat: The "Eye of God" satellites are the first military installations taken over and used during the climactic battle scene.
- Lizard Folk: Alan Turing, the guardian of the Coven's castle, is depicted as a lizard man, named after a great computer pioneer from WWII.
- Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game: The Other Plane, one of the earliest fictional examples.
- No Man Should Have This Power: After the big battle, Slip and Ery realize they're pretty much in control of the world's computing resources, and can not only protect themselves, but can fix whatever they want. They quickly realize that they could be the worst dictators the world has ever seen, and reluctantly abandon the control.
- Obfuscated Interface: the Portals used to access The Other Plane use low-bandwidth communications (to help avoid detection). The interface uses EEG, and simply learning to see The Other Plane properly, let alone manipulate it, requires training and practice.
- Online Alias: What you use instead of your True Name. Referred to as a Nym.
- Playful Hacker / The Cracker: Members of the Coven tend to fall into both these categories. Most are primarily interested in hacking for the fun of it, but all of them are wanted criminals.
- Reading the Enemy's Mail: Mr. Slippery discovers that Erythrina has one of The Mailman's associates in thrall, and is able to decrypt communications between the two.
- Recruiting the Criminal: The Feds' view of their relationship with Mr. Slippery.
- Secret Underground Passage: The castle in the Other Plane where the Coven meet is well-guarded and difficult to enter, but Erythina reveals that there are secret passages you can use to leave. This being virtual reality, making them one-way is not difficult.
- Shown Their Work: Vinge did such a good job at creating a plausible extrapolation of existing technology that Marvin Minsky, head of the AI Labs at MIT, made it the basis of a keynote speech he delivered at the Nebula Awards ceremony that year.
- Transhuman: Discussed towards the end of the story, when Slip and Ery finally meet face-to-face.
- The Trickster: Most of the Coven. In their spare time, they compare and rate each others' pranks.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: The interface used by the gamers was simple, but powerful, and close to what could have been built in 1981. No complicated, speculative neural plugs required. Just a fancy headset, powerful processors, and the skill to learn to interpret subtle clues and hints correctly. If written today, this story would be Next Sunday A.D..
- Unscrupulous Hero: Mr. Slippery. To say the least. Though a very sympathetic one.
- Viewer-Friendly Interface: The Other Plane tends to use this, but only because it's fun! Of course, you can try to cheat and use a more sensible interface, but it's risky, because The Other Plane is built and maintained by elite hackers who don't like that sort of thing, and the results may not be what you expect.