I started reading Vernor Vinge’s 1981 novella True Names because it’s arguably one of the earliest cyberpunk stories, though it’s written before cyberpunk was an acknowledged genre. It turns out the protagonist is not only a “warlock” in the computer network but also one of world’s most feted electronic writers:

“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.” (242)

The Feds who threaten him don’t see Pollack as a warlock of course, to them he’s a vandal. A hacker, they’d say these days. His comrades go by names like Robin Hood and Erythrina and with their maniulations of the tax revenue they’re a greater threat to the government than any foreign enemy. While threatening to arrest Pollack, the the Feds also admit their admiration for his legitimate creative work:

“Your participation novels are the best in the world.” There was genuine admiration in his voice. One meets fans in the oddest places. (244)

2 thoughts on “participation novels

  1. Rorschach

    This is a really great story and what turned me on to Vinge in the first place.

    I think the story has a couple different messages. The participation novels that you mention are the main character’s “work” but aren’t really more than mentioned in passing and don’t really advance the plot. Sad considering such a ripe subject these days.

    “True Names” refers to knowing someone’s name in Real Life. If someone finds out your True Name you basically end up a thrall to them: they own you. As explained in the story this comes from old myths. This isn’t all that different than the hacker/cracker mentality today, thus the need for pseudonyms.

    The Feds — while not happy with him — need Pollack to help find and eliminate another threat, not knowing truly what that threat is. What they really want Pollack to do is find another hacker’s True Name. Not to give anything away, but The Mailman is simplay an avatar for the system, representing its interests. And like most government systems, the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing.

    Another cool thing about the story is the depiction that it’s the creative and artistic types that truly interface with and use the network. The government types are confined to a two-dimensional and flat representation.

    Written twenty-four years ago, it’s fantastic how closely Vernor Vinge saw the future.


  2. Liz

    I had the pleasure of hearing Vernor Vinge speak at Pop!Tech in 2002. He’s delightful. I also approached him at the conference reception to tell him how much I enjoyed his work, and then bought a signed copy of True Names from the conference bookstore. (The edition that you seem to be reading, based on your sidebar…)

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