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Authors: Vernor Vinge


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Vernor Vinge

This is a slightly polished version of
True Names
based on the one at
which in turn is based on
a version
by The Rectifier. I have also included the updated afterword by Prof. Minsky
at his personal website.

Ultra Pear
Sep 2014

Comment by The Rectifier

This is as complete and accurate an etext of the 1984 edition of
True Names
as I can make. I agree with Project Gutenberg, regarding the superiority of hard formatted plain ASCII over other formats. Except that this work
some italics, so I’ve used a bastard mix of plain text and HTML. If you want to read it as plain text, the HTML codes for italics are not too annoying; yet in HTML it will still preserve the original work’s line formatting (minus right justification). Also included is the Afterword by Marvin Minsky, and .GIFs of all illustrations from the book. These are linked in at the correct places in the etext. One zip file contains the whole lot, for portability.

The Rectifier
Feb 1998

To my sister, Patricia Vinge, with Love.


In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for — the stories go — 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. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again:

The first hint Mr. Slippery had that his own True Name might be known — and, for that matter, known to the Great Enemy — came with the appearance of two black Lincolns humming up the long dirt driveway that stretched through the dripping pine forest down to Road 29. Roger Pollack was in his garden weeding, had been there nearly the whole morning, enjoying the barely perceptible drizzle and the overcast, and trying to find the initiative to go inside and do work that actually makes money. He looked up the moment the intruders turned, wheels squealing, into his driveway. Thirty seconds passed, and the cars came out of the third-generation forest to pull up beside and behind Pollack’s Honda. Four heavy-set men and a hard-looking female piled out, started purposefully across his well-tended cabbage patch, crushing tender young plants with a disregard which told Roger that this was no social call.

Pollack looked wildly around, considered making a break for the woods, but the others had spread out and he was grabbed and frog-marched back to his house. (Fortunately the door had been left unlocked. Roger had the feeling that they might have knocked it down rather than ask him for the key.) He was shoved abruptly into a chair. Two of the heaviest and least collegiate-looking of his visitors stood on either side of him. Pollack’s protests — now just being voiced — brought no response. The woman and an older man poked around among his sets. “Hey, I remember this, Al: It’s the script for
. See?” The woman spoke as she flipped through the holo-scenes that decorated the interior wall.

The older man nodded. “I told you. He’s written more popular games than any three men and even more than some agencies. Roger Pollack is something of a genius.”

They’re novels, damn you, not games!
Old irritation flashed unbidden into Roger’s mind. Aloud: “Yeah, but most of my fans aren’t as persistent as you all.”

“Most of your fans don’t know that you are a criminal, Mr. Pollack.”

“Criminal? I’m no criminal — but I do know my rights. You FBI types must identify yourselves, give me a phone call, and —”

The woman smiled for the first time. It was not a nice smile. She was about thirty-five, hatchet-faced, her hair drawn back in the single braid favored by military types. Even so it could have been a nicer smile. Pollack felt a chill start up his spine. “Perhaps that would be true, if we
the FBI or if you were
the scum you are. But this is a Welfare Department bust, Pollack, and you are suspected — putting it kindly — of interference with the instrumentalities of National and individual survival.”

She sounded like something out of one of those asinine scripts he occasionally had to work on for government contracts. Only now there was nothing to laugh about, and the cold between his shoulder-blades spread. Outside the drizzle had become a misty rain sweeping across the Northern California forests. Normally he found that rain a comfort, but now it just added to the gloom. Still, if there was any chance he could wriggle out of this, it would be worth the effort. “Okay, so you have license to hassle innocents, but sooner or later you’re going to discover that I
innocent and then you’ll find out what hostile media coverage can really be like.”
And thank God I backed up my files last night. With luck, all they’ll find is some out-of-date stock-market schemes.
“You’re no innocent, Pollack. An
citizen is content with an ordinary data set like yours there.” She pointed across the living room at the forty-by-fifty-centimeter data set. It was the great-grandchild of the old CRTs. With color and twenty-line-per-millimeter resolution, it was the standard of government offices and the more conservative industries. There was a visible layer of dust on Pollack’s model. The femcop moved quickly across the living room and poked into the drawers under the picture window. Her maroon business suit revealed a thin and angular figure. “An
citizen would settle for a standard processor and a few thousand megabytes of fast storage.” With some superior intuition she pulled open the center drawer-right under the marijuana plants to reveal at least five hundred cubic centimeters of optical memory, neatly racked and threaded through to the next drawer which held correspondingly powerful CPUs. Even so, it was nothing compared to the gear he had buried under the house.

She drifted out into the kitchen and was back in a moment. The house was a typical airdropped bungalow, small and easy to search. Pollack had spent most of his money on the land and his … hobbies. “And finally,” she said, a note of triumph in her voice, “an
citizen does not need one of these!” She had finally spotted the Other World gate. She waved the electrodes in Pollack’s face.

“Look, in spite of what you may want, all this is still legal. In fact, that gadget is scarcely more powerful than an ordinary games interface.” That should be a good explanation, considering that he was a novelist.

The older man spoke almost apologetically, “I’m afraid Virginia has a tendency to play cat and mouse, Mr. Pollack. You see, we know that in the Other World you are Mr. Slippery.”


There was a long silence. Even “Virginia” kept her mouth shut. This had been, of course, Roger Pollack’s great fear. They had discovered Mr. Slippery’s True Name and it was Roger Andrew Pollack TIN/SSAN 0959-34-2861, and no amount of evasion, tricky programming, or robot sources could ever again protect him from them. “How did you find out?”

A third cop, a technician type, spoke up. “It wasn’t easy. We wanted to get our hands on someone who was really good, not a trivial vandal — what your Coven would call a lesser warlock.” The younger man seemed to know the jargon, but you could pick that up just by watching the daily paper. “For the last three months, DoW has been trying to find the identity of someone of the caliber of yourself or Robin Hood, or Erythrina, or the Slimey Limey. We were having no luck at all until we turned the problem around and began watching artists and novelists. We figured at least a fraction of them must be attracted to vandal activities. And they would have the talent to be good at it. Your participation novels are the best in the world.” There was genuine admiration in his voice.
One meets fans in the oddest places
, “so you were one of the first people we looked at. Once we suspected you, it was just a matter of time before we had the evidence.”

It was what he had always worried about. A successful warlock cannot afford to be successful in the real world. He had been greedy; he loved both realms too much.

The older cop continued the technician’s almost diffident approach. “In any case, Mr. Pollack, I think you realize that if the Federal government wants to concentrate all its resources on the apprehension of a single vandal, we can do it. The vandals’ power comes from their numbers rather than their power as individuals.”

Pollack repressed a smile. That was a common belief — or faith — within government. He had snooped on enough secret memos to realize that the Feds really believed it, but it was very far from true. He was not nearly as clever as someone like Erythrina. He could only devote fifteen or twenty hours a week to SIG activities. Some of the others must be on welfare, so complete was their presence on the Other Plane. The cops had nailed him simply because he was a relatively easy catch.

“So you have something besides jail planned for me?”

“Mr. Pollack, have you ever heard of the Mailman?”

“You mean on the Other Plane?”

“Certainly. He has had no notoriety in the, uh, real world as yet.”

For the moment there was no use lying. They must know that no member of a SIG or coven would ever give his True Name to another member. There was no way he could betray any of the others —
he hoped

“Yeah, he’s the weirdest of the werebots.”


“Were — robots, like werewolves — get it? They don’t really mesh with coven imagery. They want some new mythos, and this notion that they are humans who can turn into machines seems to suit them. It’s too dry for me. This Mailman, for instance, never uses real time communication. If you want anything from him, you usually have to wait a day or two for each response — just like the old-time hardcopy mail service.” “That’s the fellow. How impressed are you by him?” “Oh, we’ve been aware of him for a couple years, but he’s so slow that for a long time we thought he was some clown on a simple data set. Lately, though, he’s pulled some really —” Pollack stopped short, remembering just who he was gossiping with. “Some really tuppin stunts, eh, Pollack?” The femcop “Virginia” was back in the conversation. She pulled up one of the roller chairs, till her knees were almost touching his, and stabbed a finger at his chest. “You may not know just how tuppin. You vandals have caused Social Security Records enormous problems, and Robin Hood cut IRS revenues by three percent last year. You and your friends are a greater threat than any foreign enemy. Yet you’re nothing compared to this Mailman.”

Pollack was rocked back. It must be that he had seen only a small fraction of the Mailman’s japes. “You’re actually scared of him,” he said mildly.

Virginia’s face began to take on the color of her suit. Before she could reply, the older cop spoke. “Yes, we are scared. We can scarcely cope with the Robin Hoods and the Mr. Slipperys of the world. Fortunately, most vandals are interested in personal gain or in proving their cleverness. They realize that if they cause too much trouble, they could no doubt be identified. I suspect that tens of thousands of cases of Welfare and Tax fraud are undetected, committed by little people with simple equipment who succeed because they don’t steal much — perhaps just their own income tax liability — and don’t wish the notoriety which you, uh, warlocks go after. If it weren’t for their petty individualism, they would be a greater threat than the nuclear terrorists.

“But the Mailman is different: he appears to be ideologically motivated. He is
powerful. Vandalism is not enough for him; he wants control…” The Feds had no idea how long it had been going on, at least a year. It never would have been discovered but for a few departments in the Federal Screw Standards Commission which kept their principal copy records on paper. Discrepancies showed up between those records and the decisions rendered in the name of the FSSC. Inquiries were made; computer records were found at variance with the hardcopy. More inquiries. By luck more than anything else, the investigators discovered that decision modules as well as data were different from the hardcopy backups. For thirty years government had depended on automated central planning, shifting more and more from legal descriptions of decision algorithms to program representations that could work directly with data bases to allocate resources, suggest legislation, outline military strategy.

The take-over had been subtle, and its extent was unknown. That was the horror of it. It was not even clear just what groups within the Nation (or without) were benefitting from the changed interpretations of Federal law and resource allocation. Only the decision modules in the older departments could be directly checked, and some thirty percent of them showed tampering. “…and that percentage scares us as much as anything, Mr. Pollack. It would take a large team of technicians and lawyers
to successfully make just the changes that we have detected.”

“What about the military?” Pollack thought of the Finger of God installations and the thousands of missiles pointed at virtually every country on Earth. If Mr. Slippery had ever desired to take over the world, that is what he would have gone for. To hell with pussy-footing around with Social Security checks.

“No. No penetration there. In fact, it was his attempt to infiltrate —” the older cop glanced hesitantly at Virginia, and Pollack realized who was the boss of this operation, “—NSA that revealed the culprit to be the Mailman. Before that it was anonymous, totally without the ego-flaunting we see in big-time vandals. But the military and NSA have their own systems. Impractical though that is, it paid off this time.” Pollack nodded. The SIG steered clear of the military, and especially of NSA.

“But if he was able to slide through DoW and Department of Justice defenses so easy, you really don’t know how much a matter of luck it was that he didn’t also succeed with his first try on NSA …. I think I understand now. You need help. You hope to get some member of the Coven to work on this from the inside.”

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