Review: True Names and Other Dangers
Vernor Vinge, Baen Books, 275 pp, $2.95

By Ken Ficara

Published in Fantasy Review, Summer 1988

True Names and Other Dangers is a collection of short stories revolving around the theme of what happens when man begins to create greater intelligences than his own. Author Vernor Vinge says in his introduction that at that point, "human history will have reached a kind of singularity -- a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied." Therefore, he says, the best writers can do "is creep up on the Singularity, and hang ten at its edge." Most of the stories deal with the issue in one fashion or another, although a few of them don't so much hang ten over it as wave at it on the way by.

"True Names," a novella published several years ago in one of Dell's Binary Star doubles, constitutes about a third of the book's volume, and is fortunately the best story of the collection. A precursor to cyberpunk, it was one of the first stories to postulate a world data net that users perceive as a physical environment. Instead of the usual ice-running and matrices, the hackers are warlocks and witches, databases are deep pools, and satellites are vast mountain peaks.

The hackers operate under elaborate pseudonyms ("The Red Witch," for instance) and carefully hide their "true names," keeping their lives in the real world distinct from their alter egos in the "Other Plane," and protecting themselves from retribution or blackmail by other hackers, or the police. Overall, it's a fast-paced, believable story that is an interesting change of pace from the cyberpunk genre that followed it.

Were the rest of the collection this good, it would be stellar indeed. But it isn't. "The Peddler's Apprentice," a collaboration with Joan D. Vinge, takes an interesting twist after its typical middle-ages-after-the-bomb opening, but the remaining three stories are somewhat flat. "Bookworm, Run," about a enhanced chimp's escape from a research facility, is an early story that sounds like one, and its cold-war setting dates it badly. "Long Shot" and "The Ungoverned" are fairly typical hard sf, the latter set in the world of Vinge's The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime.

The title story is almost worth the price of the book alone, assuming you haven't already read it. The rest of the stories are good but not great, and Vinge in his introductions sometimes stretches hard to fit them all into his "theme." Some stories, especially "Bookworm, Run" would have been better off left out entirely, even though they fit the theme perfectly. Perhaps if Vinge had treated this as an ordinary story collection it might not have seemed so strained at points.