This is a review of Vernor Vinge's two story collections, True Names and Other Dangers (Baen, 1987, ISBN 0-671-65363-6, 275 pp) and Threats and Other Promises (Baen, 1988, ISBN 0-671-69790-0, 320 pp). I won't review every single story.
"True Names", the title story of the first volume, is one of the earliest virtual reality stories I know of (it was first published in 1981). The "true name" metaphor from fantasy, where a sorceror must keep his true name a secret lest his enemy use it in magics against him, is used throughout the story for the hackers (they call themselves "warlocks") attempting to keep their real names secret, lest their enemies be able to go after them in the real world. The story opens as Mr. Slippery discovers that the Great Enemy (the U. S. Gov't) has learned his true name, and threatens to send him to prison or cut off his net access unless he will serve as their agent in the net against a more powerful warlock -- the Mailman, who never appears "in person" in the Other World, but converses with other warlocks through a teletype. How Mr. Slippery joins Erythrina, a witch who has her own reasons for wanting to find out who the Mailman is, and tracks him down, makes an excellent story. The descriptions of the Other World and the EEG interfaces that let folks link into it are good both technically and stylistically.
"The Ungoverned", in True Names, and "Conquest by Default", in Threats, look at anarchy from two different perspectives. In "The Ungoverned", which takes place some years after the events in Vinge's novel The Peace War, the ungoverned lands are being invaded by the armies of the Republic of New Mexico. Al's Protection Racket and the Michigan State Police, two protection services, try to halt the invasion, as is their plain duty to their customers. There are also "armadilloes" who don't hire any of the protection services and defend themselves very creditably against the invasion. In "Conquest by Default," a post-nuclear war Earth, with civilization surviving only in the southern hemisphere, is contacted by anarchist aliens, the Mikin. They don't quite know what to make of the governments of Australia, Sudamerica and Africa. There is dissention among them about how to deal with the humans and their governments, and a Mikin anthropologist sent to study these governments discovers what looks like a plot to exterminate the humans. The ending is a surprise.
"Original Sin" (in Threats) takes place on an alien planet among short-lived creatures, the Shimans, who have, since humans contacted them two centuries earlier, advanced from a stone-age to about early 20th century technology. The main character is on the planet against the wishes of Earth's government having been hired by some of the natives to develop immortality for them -- or, at least, extend it a lot beyond the twenty-four months they live naturally. He ends up having to team up with the Earthcop he had to bribe to get onto the planet undetected. The humans' technology is "sufficiently advanced to look like magic" and is enigmatically referred to occasionally; "Remember spaceships?" and "If I had used my 'mam'ri at the prime integers, Earthpol would be there before I could count to three." The story focuses on the risks of extending the Shimans' lifespans -- if they live any longer, they'll soon outstrip humans and dominate us -- and the main character's decision whether to finish the job.
"The Blabber" (in Threats) is set in the same world as Vinge's Hugo-winning A Fire Upon the Deep. Middle America is a colony planet settled from Earth, just ten light-years inside the Slow Zone -- close enough to the Beyond that they get visitors from it occasionally; far enough that few of its people will ever be able to go there. The story is about a young man, Hamid Thompson, and his alien pet, the Blabber. (Readers of A Fire Upon the Deep will immediately recognize the Blabber as a Tine; in fact several surprises in "The Blabber" are spoiled by having read A Fire Upon the Deep, but not the whole story.) A caravan of tourists is visiting Middle America now, and Hamid, like many other people on Middle America, is trying to find a way to get passage out to the Beyond. So when one of the visitors offers to buy the Blabber, Hamid insists on going along as a trainer. Then the folks for whom the alien was agenting get in touch with Hamid directly, and it becomes clear they want the Blabber enough to try anything to get her. (12/93)
The Baen collections have been out of print for a while, but all of their contents have been reprinted in:
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