Hugo Nominee: “True Names”

This week’s story. This week’s commentary:

Abigail Nussbaum:

A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was–the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders–who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, “True Names,” is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors’ strengths and favorite topics–Rosenbaum’s penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story “The House Beyond Your Sky,” and Doctorow’s fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I’ve spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it’ll probably turn out that I’ve got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make “True Names” sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.

“True Names”‘s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies’ actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the ‘real’ world. Like “The Tear,” then, “True Names” is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn’t quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together–the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.


I’ve not done my quota of lists on this blog, so here are my reasons why True Names is AWESOME.

  1. It’s short. It can be read in a sitting or listened to over the course of a couple commutes.
  2. It’s not TOO short. It’s a novella, if you’re frustrated with me being vague.
  3. It’s written like Bach’s inventions. Simple components combined and recombined into beautiful complexity—simple is relative, of course.
  4. Quantum Computers Rock!
  5. Modeling Universes is FUN
  6. Sock puppets are almost as cool as muppets. Actually the sock puppet might be cooler if it was a goddess
  7. Galactic battles SO enormous they can only be described via metaphor.
  8. Go is the best game ever, and the game played in this story is one of the most seamlessly integrated I’ve ever encountered in a science fiction story.
  9. It introduced me to Ben Rosenbaum … actually the name sounded familiar. I’ve heard 3 of his stories on Escapepod. If you like True Names you’ll dig “The House Beyond Your Sky,” (or vice versus) and the other two stories, while VERY different, are quite spectacular. I’m totally grabbing a copy of The Ant King and Other Stories when it’s released.
  10. It got me excited enough to write this list, and I haven’t even finished listening it. I’ll update this after I finish listening to it on my drive to work.
  11. update: I finished this on the way to work. So, imagine reality is the reality of The Matrix and then imagine there are other realities competing for computation. That’s the simple idea I mentioned in point 3, and Cory and Ben layer it upon itself beautifully. It’s wild having events happen at the scale of galaxies, yet still be a very personal tale. I could see that the abstract convolutions could turn a few people away, but if you can follow a Tarantino flick, then you’ll be able to follow as the secrets of the universe reveal their secrets and their secrets’ secrets.

Rich Horton:

The longest and arguably most ambitious of these entries is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel according to Hugo rules. Perhaps this is a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model — otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”, and for all I know, it’s not really intended to be a Vinge riff.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation — at multiple levels — and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in — nor always understood — what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

What’s good here — tons of imaginative ideas, lots of rigorous thought behind the setup. And an ironic and well thought out conclusion. What didn’t work for me — as I said, much of it simply seemed too abstract. Too much the authors telling us what we should think about what was going on rather than making us believe it. And, I’m not sure I understood everything. Which, I hasten to emphasize, is as much or more my fault than the authors’. Pace much discussion of Greg Egan’s Incandescence, there are some stories that demand a lot of their readers (in different ways for different stories). And it’s not a fair argument to say that the burden is entirely on the writers to make a story accessible to all readers, or even most. If a story is properly told in such a way that only a subset get it, that’s fine, particularly if telling it differently would ruin it. Heck, that’s the case for much of the SF genre when so-called “mundane” readers encounter us! That said, in all honesty, if the story didn’t work for me, I can’t vote it ahead of stories that did. But I respect those who did get it.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

Fast Forward 2‘s showy centerpiece is the novella “True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum, presented in hyper-widescreen. This is a story so densely populated with “—al” ideas (ontological, epistemological, SFnal, computational, mythological, legal, cryptographical, take your pick) that it’s probably as close to actually being made of computronium as a contemporary SF story can be. Many of these ideas (those which I understood, or think I understood) tickled my brain and commanded my respect, and as an exercise in extreme imagination I found it impressive—but as a work of fiction it is the one piece in Fast Forward 2 that failed to keep me entertained or engrossed. “True Names” presents a Universe in which three highly advanced forms of AI, Beebe, the Demiurge and Brobdignag compete for computation and ideology. […] the power struggle between them, as experienced by the characters of Alonzo, Algernon, Paquette, Nadia and others, sometimes as emulations inside each other’s entity matrices, serves as the springboard for the novella’s central, and abstract, preoccupations. I found myself unable to develop any attachment for the characters or their simulations: the dialogue was too stultified with adolescent-sounding techno-avatar-isms like, “But Alonzo, she’s so hot!” and their behavior comprised more of wide-eyed naivete and sardonic posturing than any real emotion. This left me skating on the sheer and audacious profligacy of concepts. What I found was a beautiful museum collection, a magnificent display of pre-existing ideas arranged in fabulous geometries and twisted into pleasing, recombinant strategies of exuberance, only lacking the one arresting moment of originality that can take our breath away. This might seem like a strange claim on my part. Perhaps “True Names” is so Far Out, in setting, that I found myself not caring sufficiently about how Far Out it was. Not even the Solipsist’s Lemma could save me.

Paul Raven:

By dint of sheer size alone, the centrepiece of Fast Forward 2 is Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names”, an implicit homage to Vernor Vinge’s seminal novella of the same title (often credited as being one of the first fictional appearances of a recognisable technological singularity as well as one of the earliest works to have a fully realised ‘cyberspace’ as its setting, three years prior to Gibson’s Neuromancer). No surprise, then, that it’s a crazy bells-and-whistles epic of big ideas that pits three different post-singular societies against each other on a galactic scale. Because of that, it’s sure to be the sort of story you love or hate; fans of Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, Stross’s Accelerando and some of Doctorow’s own material are going to lap up the multiple iterations of the same characters, the nested and interlocking simulated realities, and the sheer ebullient geekery of the whole thing. I enjoyed “True Names” a great deal, but there’s a case to be made that the flux of characters and situations (and the firehose of ideas) could be hard reading for a reader more accustomed to conventional narratives; it might also have been a little shorter. But considered as an imaginative sensawunda geek-out, “True Names” raises the bar for the subgenre.

17 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “True Names”

  1. I’m with Alvaro on this one: all that far out stuff got in the way of the story. And I’ve yet to be convinced that computing vocabulary works as a sfnal metaphor. My comments are here.

  2. I have to confess I have nothing to add right now, since I haven’t found the time to re-read yet. (The reason being my *other* project for this month is to read all the Campbell-shortlisted authors, and Acacia is a big beast of a book.) This evening, I hope; but at the moment I’m more in Peter’s camp than Ian’s.

  3. Well, I code for a living and I adored it. I was actually more inclined to think that coders would have an easier time with the story, but Niall isn’t one, so.

  4. I write code as well (or, as we say, I’m a software engineer), and I’m on the minus side.

    I will say I write embedded real-time code, and not networky stuff … hate C++ …

  5. The single greatest thing I’ve read in several years, freeing pure character from exposition. It reminded me, in the way it insisted that character was all, of a Pixar movie, where character can be implanted in anything from a toaster to an air current (warning, neither of those things has happened in a Pixar movie, but they *could*), and immediately, us being human, becomes what we stare at.

  6. What? There was shitloads of exposition in it. Like:

    The Beebean system of tav calculation was a corollary result from the work of classical mathematician and poet Albigromious, who first formulated the proof of the incalculability of the Solipsist’s Lemma.

  7. I’m in the camp that thinks this was awesome, which doubtless affects my response to Ian’s comment. But I don’t think Paul is saying either that the story is free of exposition or that the exposition’s done badly; he’s saying that the approach to exposition & character is new. And to my mind much of the exposition (yes, there is a lot) is done as well as the Prologue of The Stars My Destination – which is about as good as it gets.

  8. I don’t exactly code for a living, but I do a fair amount of coding…
    I don’t think there is or can be such a literal split – there are hardcore coders who simply don’t want to read this sort of stuff (same with Charlie Stross, same with The I.T. Crowd) and there are those who adore it.

  9. I had no idea about any of the (possibly computing) background, so the exposition just washed over me. What I loved was that we followed only character, without quite knowing what this environment was, and without needing to know. That’s what I meant, that we don’t need to know what makes these guys what they are: we recognise courtiers and wise old advisors not matter what the context. Like Shakespeare as well as Pixar!

  10. While I had the similar feelings to Alvaro Zinos-Amaro about the quasi-adolescent dialogue, the not-quite-phat horsing around took a back seat to the sense of being thrust – increasingly rapidly – through a story that couldn’t wait to be told. For all the exposition, the effect is strangely visceral, isn’t it? Few SF stories take my breath with their newness like this one did; certainly in Fast Forward 2 it stood out as the only thing that made the anthology title sound like a serious goal.

    That said, it did occasionally feel like a big game, and I didn’t pick up on how it might have related to previous work by Egan, or Vinge. And I haven’t read the Vinge story it takes its name from. Anyone care to describe how it relates?

  11. I meant to mention this: Vinge’s “True Names” is available online as an HTML page here, or a PDF here, and worth reading; though I didn’t spot any specific riffs in the Doctorow/Rosenbaum version (compared to the riffs in, say, Doctorow’s “I, Robot”), only the shared general themes of simulated reality and identity within that.

  12. I am not a super geek nor a regular geek – that would be my father, who introduced me to The Big Bang Theory (the show, that is), and to whom I introduced xkcd webcomic, to which I was introduced by my old college buddies. Sub-culture-wise, I guess you could say I am the geek-equivalent of a “fag hag” (before you get offended, look it up!)- an honorary geek, if you will.

    Lately, I have been reading all the Doctorow I can get my hands on. I enjoyed “True Names” a lot, but due to my non-geek-ness knowledge level, I believe I missed a whole lot of the mathematics/ physics/ coding references (and I should be much more familiar with the philosophical references than I am!), and thus read it largely as a lay-person, or maybe, more accurately, like someone watching a film in a language they don’t know, picking up the plot only from the visual cues. In reading the story, I variably experienced the story’s setting a) as a computer, b) as a universe, and c) as one inside of the other to infinity (and beyond!), like a möbius strip or the impossible triangle, or some kind of Escherian universe.

    There was however, one point where the image for me was almost blindingly biological – when the comet entered and was absorbed by Byzantium. It was almost an epiphany (well, ok, not quite that profound)! But of course! Reproduction on the cellular level! Comet absorbed by Byzantium; filter absorbed by sprite; sperm absorbed by egg; the sometimes imperfect replication of DNA. I would have to re-read the story to see how far this metaphor actually pans out, but if it does, it’s just brilliant! One of those mid-story paradigm-shift shockers.

    I would also like to request some help. I feel certain that some of the names in the story are humorous or punny, or in some other way referential – could someone translate for me? Just a searchable term is sufficient – I am not asking for a physics lesson! Examples: Brobignag (Gulliver’s Travels reference?), Paquette (is “packet” a computer term?), Beebe, Nadia; anything special about the names Alonzo and Algernon?

    Names I was able to search and find on my own: Solipsist’s Lemma (the Solipsist’s Dilemma – probably should have already known that one!), Demiurge (a creator deity), Firmament (the vault or expanse of the heavens).


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