A cyberspace, cyberpunk landmark in sf history: Vernor Vinge’s True Names, a 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ diverse four-decade-plus history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian work of sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 a series of Appreciations of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation of Vernor Vinge’s story “True Names,” a 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction.
By Michael Grossberg  
 and Chris Hibbert

“True Names” is a seminal work of the cyberpunk genre.

A landmark when it was published in 1981, Vernor Vinge’s now-classic story gave the public their first glimpse of cyberspace and showed how the struggle for control might penetrate the new medium.

One of the earliest works of fiction to present a fully detailed concept of cyberspace, the story also explores themes of anarchism and trans-humanism that are of great interest to libertarian futurists.

The story follows the progress of a group of computer hackers who keep their true identities secret while being among the first to adopt a new full-immersion virtual-reality technology. They do so out of curiosity or an entrepreneurial desire to profit – both respectable and even laudable motivations from the libertarian perspective that appreciates the crucial role of innovation and free markets in advancing human progress, prosperity, well-being and knowledge.

The central adversary in the story is the U.S. government, which can threaten these “warlocks” by finding out their true names and forcing them to work for the government. Vinge depicts the government as corrupt, bureaucratic, incompetent in many areas, and a danger to freedom and privacy.

Vinge was one of the first observers of the nascent computer scene to realize that protecting one’s identity on-line would turn out to be crucial for many people, whether to protect one’s right to speak freely, to explore various identities, or to explore or exploit hidden computer resources. We continue to see the dangers of exposed identity with modern doxing and other ways that online fights can follow people to their real lives.

When the government learns the true name of “Mr. Slippery,” actually a California holo-novelist, he’s forced to investigate the Mailman, a mysterious new warlock suspected of efforts to subvert networks and databases.

Amid the search by Mr. Slippery and a new female ally, the cybernetic battles cause global chaos, a worldwide depression and computer-linked use of military weaponry to target the physical bodies of foes in the virtual world. This imagery has been repeated in many other stories, including Prometheus award winning stories by Daniel Suarez, Ramez Naam, and Ernest Cline.

One libertarian theme that emerges amid several plot twists is the temptation the central characters face to keep the power they’ve gained while fighting their cyberwars.

In the best libertarian, classical-liberal and individualist spirit of wariness about how “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (to quote Lord Acton, the brilliant 19th-century classical-liberal British historian), they ultimately and admirably decide not to become tyrants.

That’s a happy ending in anyone’s book, but especially appreciated by libertarians as an exemplary moral of the story.

Note: The American science fiction author Vernor Vinge (1944 –  ), a retired professor who taught mathematics and computer science at San Diego State University, also has won Prometheus Awards for Best Novel in 1987 for Marooned in Real Time and in 2000 for A Deepness in the Sky.

Vernor Vinge (Creative Commons license)

His story “The Ungoverned” was inducted in 2004 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Vinge received a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.

He’s won the Hugo award several times, including in 1992 for the novel A Fire Upon the Deep (set in the same future world as A Deepness in the Sky), in 1999 for the novel A Deepness in the Sky ,in 2006 for the novel Rainbow’s End, in 2002 for the novella Fast Times at Fairmont High and in 2004 for the novella The Cookie Monster.

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: 
For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website. This page is regularly updated to add convenient links (to the right of each winning title on the list) to each Appreciation as they are published on the Prometheus Blog.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

  • Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans .
    Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.


Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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