Mike's Book Reviews

True Names


Vernor Vinge

Subtitle:   And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

Click here. Classification: No one-or-two-word way to categorize this: It's part essays on AI and online Web communities, and part pure science fiction. Read on.

What it's about:   True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier  has two very different sections to it:

The first 240 pages consists of a collection of recently-written discussions by various scientists and forward-looking prognosticators. They cover the gamut from evaluating the impact of "True Names" in creating the concept of "cyberspace" to predictions of where things will go from here in the areas of Web communities, AI, etc.

The last roughly 100 pages consists of the science fiction story "True Names" itself, which was written in 1981 -- before there WAS a "cyberspace." It's credited with popularizing the concept, among scientists at least, and hence hastening the creation of the Web.

What I DIDN'T like about this book:   Some of the papers in the first portion of the book (before the SF story itself) were "old news" to me, and I found myself flipping pages with only an occasional check to see if that topic had gotten better. I read this book to find new ideas, not review past history. I know what happened in the last 20 years. I was there.

What I DID like about this book:   Two things:
A) The majority of the papers in the first portion of the book.
B) The "True Names" story itself.

In the section with the technical papers, the Danny Hillis paper that starts off the book was truly outstanding! He discusses dealing with the ever-increasing rate of technological change, while assuming that people won't be changing into "super brains" anytime soon. Very thought-provoking. The paper on intelligent software (AI - or Artificial Intelligence) was also very good. And the articles showing the history of "anonymizer" software and name-hiding sites was all new to me, and quite fascinating. After reading the "True Names" story, I appreciated more what I'd read about all that. There are a number of interesting efforts well-underway right now that can provide virtually uncrackable masking of a user's true identity on the Net. Whether cryptography and virtual anarchy on the Web is good or bad is another topic, but it's worthwhile knowing that such software and websites exist.

Other papers in the first section discussed efforts by various programming teams to build "online habitats" or "online worlds" that people would voluntarily spend much of their time in. Some worked well, some didn't. It was interesting to see what worked and what failed.

The BEST part of the book, for me, was the last 100 or so pages. Those hold the reprinted "True Names" story itself. It was OUTSTANDING!   Bottom line: I found myself pushing aside work that I really wanted to get to, to read the story some more. I got so tense, at some parts of the story, that I was literally sweating. Wet armpits, racing heartbeat, the whole thing. That shows you how much I identified with the main character, and the "virtual world" he inhabited on the Net.

The virtual world he spent time in doesn't exist, even yet. It introduced concepts such as "avatars" -- virtual characters that represent you in the Web environment. It provided the main actors with full sensory input from the Web environment -- sight, sound, physical sensations such as walking, touching, etc. -- that will be awhile coming, even today. The "mind link" or "brain link" connection to the Web that the author proposed isn't here yet, either. But it was believable. As was his computer-enhanced intelligence while online. And that of his enemies. I found that I feared for the main character, and mentally ran alongside of him as he and his online friends (and enemy-turned-lover) lived in that Web world.

While all this was going on, in the "physical world" government (and other) agents were trying to find out his "true name," so they could then learn his home address and thus locate his link connection and his comatose physical body. And kill it. That's "final death." No "virtual death" this time.

It ended up being a very believable set of "parallel worlds" in a strange way. With struggles being fought, alliances made and stressed, in both the physical world and the virtual world. And often between those two worlds. When you control the software that handles all military communications and messages, and can thus launch missles or give official-appearing orders to soldiers, you control physical force. And it's not just a game anymore.

Marvin Minsky's "Afterword" section puts all that came before into perspective in a most satisfying way. It was a good conclusion to a great book.

My overall evaluation of True Names:   I'm very glad I bought the book! I learned a LOT from some of the papers in the first portion--and understood more why they'd been included after reading the SF story at the end. And I was completely caught up in the "True Names" story itself--it was a TERRIFIC read! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

It's been said that "True Names" helped cause the Web to come into being. After reading it, I can believe that.

To give you a better feel for its contents, here are the book's chapter titles:
To learn some surprising history about the Web, and to follow interesting speculations about
where it's all headed within our lifetimes, read this book!
To experience a gripping story by one of SF's very best writers, read this book!

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True Names was written in 1981. It was science fiction, but Vernor Vinge tried to accurately predict technology that could eventually come true.

Now, 20 years later, another great book has been written, extrapolating what we now know about computers, AI, and the Web into the next 20-30 years. That book is "The Age of Spiritual Machines -- When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence" by Ray Kurzweil.   It is NOT "science fiction" per se, although it may seem like it. It tries to show us the general path technology and AI will inevitably take. I don't think I've read a better book in the last 10 years.

To see my review of "The Age of Spiritual Machines",  please click here .

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(C) Copyright 2002, 2003 by M. O'Gara -- all rights reserved.