It’s extremely easy if you’re not paying much attention to your reading choices to get stuck on the default white, heterosexual male viewpoint. This review is an example of me paying a little more attention, and finding a solid work of fiction for my trouble.
The main characters in “Trouble and Her Friends”, and the majority of secondary characters as well, are not heterosexual. In fact, the novel won a Lambda Award when it came out, a high honor reserved for LGBT-themed works. The Lambda win is well-deserved because the LGBT themes are not simply tacked on.
A dystopian future and a tendency to follow the perspective of the most marginalized citizens are defining features of cyberpunk,of which “Trouble” is a shining example. The themes of discrimination and disenfranchisement fit LGBT characters, who have long been marginalized in society, like a glove. Of course it took so long for someone to make this obvious connection because LGBT perspectives are consistently underrepresented in fiction. Even imaginary characters face discrimination.
This is true in the novel as well. Trouble and her friends, are the best crackers in the business, but due to their orientation, they’re considered on the fringe, even among the already outsider group of netwalkers. It’s no surprise, then, that they treat each other as family and are fiercely protective of one another. The novel title is quite appropriate — it really is a story about love and friendship, rather than a lone, electronic gunslinger.
Note that 1994 is when this book first came out. That’s a long time ago. I was just starting middle school. But it’s also a bit late for a cyberpunk book. To put it in context, this speculative work on the future of the “nets” (another odd artifact of its particular time and place; the book was written just early enough to have to guess, incorrectly, at what the slang term would actually be), came on the cusp of Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, which arguably brought personal computers and Internet access to the masses.
Melissa Scott’s work is the real deal, however. It was written at a time when only a limited number of people were online, the interface required a certain degree of expertise which self-selected for self-taught programmers, and the possibilities of a virtual world seemed endless. Who knew Moore’s Law and the promises of “Tron” and Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” were actually building up to LOLcats and inane Facebook status updates?
Reading this book in the second decade of the 21st century, therefore, requires a certain suspension of disbelief, though no more than reading Golden Age stuff, which had us colonizing the entire Solar System by 1998.
“Trouble and Her Friends” also has an interesting parallel to today; the novel opens on the eve of some very controversial legislation designed to police online activity. The proposed laws, initiated in the United States in opposition to international agreements that seem better thought out, promise to destroy the functionality of the online world. This has some very personal consequences for the titular Trouble, and her many cracker friends, who operated in a legal grey area collecting valuable information on the nets (I assume the term hacker either didn’t exist or had not yet caught on when Scott wrote this).
Significantly, it also means the end between Trouble and her long-time lover, Cerise, since they simply could not agree on how to live in this new world, out of the shadows of the nets. Cerise comes home to find Trouble gone without a trace. When the next chapter opens, three years have gone by, and each woman has become a different person. However, they are both about to be caught up in the same trouble (lower-case “t” this time) when someone new shows up on the nets. Calling him or herself Trouble, this pretender makes trouble for the original cracker, our heroine who has been retired since the draconian net legislation passed.
Cerise and Trouble both find themselves searching for this fake independently, and both for Trouble’s sake, though the former lovers have not been in touch since their break-up. They both find themselves reconnecting with old friends, hitting up old haunts, and upgrading their no-longer-legal electronic tools, the most notable of which is an implant called a “brainworm.” The direct interface between network servers and organic brain is potentially dangerous, and highly illegal, but it allows direct sensory interpretation of data, a true immersion into a virtual world whose immediacy pays dividends when working as a cracker. It’s the natural next step from Stephenson’s VR interface of motion sensing equipment and video goggles.
One of the strong points of the novel, for me, is the way Scott makes the reader aware of a larger political and social world outside the virtual environments crackers spend their time. She spends little time laying out the details of where we are towards the end of the 21st century, but the prominent role of corporations, whose executives seem above the law, the polluted beaches of corrosive sand, suggest a backdrop of social breakdown without beating us over the head with it.
One of the weaknesses of the book is a weakness of most cyberpunk from the ’80s and early ’90s, which is that some of the technical details just don’t make sense. Computer science isn’t my specialty, but I know that being able to smell, taste and touch data through a direct-brain interface isn’t something that would just happen spontaneously.
The metaphors of defensive software as walls of ice, intrusion programs as hammers, etc., imply an extra layer of mediating software, something designed to interpret programs and other electronic information into sensory perception for the netwalker, and this rings somewhat false to me. Real hackers don’t add another layer of software to make programs more user-friendly to work with. Quite the opposite: they go below the surface of a program, reading the code in which it is written.
That’s a quibble. William Gibson himself was off-base on many of the technical details, but his “Sprawl” novels are still what most people will point to when talking about cyberpunk. Melissa Scott has well-realized characters, two immersive worlds (the real one and the virtual one), and a refreshingly different non-male, non-hetero viewpoint. If you happen to like cyberpunk, I see no reason you shouldn’t like this novel.
Image credit: Tor Books