True Names

by Vernor Vinge
Reviewed date: 2013 Aug 26
cover art

Mr. Slippery is a warlock in the Other Plane, a virtual world that exists in a decentralized internet-like network. He is a member of the Coven, a group of online mischief-makers. Federal agents hunt him down in the real world and compell him to help them discover the identity of someone who is a real menace: the Mailman.

Mr. Slippery doesn't know much about the Mailman. He just showed up one day at the Coven. He communicates with a time-delay: type a message into a console, and hours or days later the machine prints out a response. Slippery, with help from his friend Erythrina, supposes that the delay must be a ruse meant to disguise the fact that the Mailman is out in space--and thus limited by the speed-of-light-delay and the bandwidth limitations of his connection.

The truth is even more fantastic. The Feds give Erythrina and Mr. Slippery unlimited access to all their resources, which they commandeer to fight the Mailman. The fight consumes all of Earth's computing resources, causing widespread devastation and loss of life. The Mailman is defeated. In the denouement, Slippery visits Erythrina in the real world, where she explains that the Mailman was not extra-terrestrial, but was a true artificial intelligence. The result of a runaway military experiment, the Mailman grew by itself out on the Other Plane. The communication time delay was a result of insufficient computing power to correctly simulate intelligent interaction.

True Names isn't a bad story. I kind of liked it--certainly more than I enjoyed Snow Crash, although both have a similar take on virtual reality network that feels like a worldwide Dungeons-and-Dragons role-playing game.

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