Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
Reviewed by Matthew Cheney
08 August 2011
The opening sentence of Neuromancer is among the most famous of any science fiction novels': "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." In 1984, when Neuromancer was first published, the color of a dead TV channel was sparkling grey.
In his 2009 novel WWW: Wake, Robert J. Sawyer alludes to William Gibson's sentence with one of his own: "The sky above the island was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel—which is to say it was a bright, cheery blue."
Despite having a meaning in our world that is the opposite of what it was in 1984, Gibson's original sentence holds some of its power still, especially for those of us who remember a world where television shows beamed into our homes through antennas rather than cables. The sentence vividly and efficiently captures the blurring of nature, technology, reality, and representation that Neuromancer's plot, setting, and characters reveled in. "Television" is an awfully different thing more than twenty-five years after Neuromancer, and the future in the novel is now an alternate world, because though the cyberpunks got a lot right, there was no way to really predict the ubiquitous banality of our miracles: Facebooks and Googles and iEverything. What the cyberpunks got right about all this, though, was how much we'd love jargon, and especially how that jargon would become commodified. Indeed, Gibson and his compatriots gave us a lot of the original lingo. We live now not in the future that Neuromancer predicted, but the future that it named.
Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends was first published ten years after Neuromancer, but in its language and structure it feels older. Reading it now in a re-released edition from Tor books gives us a chance to see what happens when a science fiction novel outlives not only its future, but its imagination.
Trouble and Her Friends is set at the end of the 21st century, a world where computer nets hold vast quantities of data, computer crackers jack into a virtual landscape and navigate the nodes, and corporations defend their property with Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic), known as IC(E)—a term popularized, without the parentheses, by Gibson in Neuromancer. In Scott's novel, the U.S. Congress has passed a law that makes the theft of bits and bytes the equal of any other type of property theft, and this has sent a lot of the hackers into retirement, or made them switch sides. Such is the case for a woman who had made a name for herself on the nets under the moniker Trouble. Her partner from the wild days, Cerise, has become a syscop with a big corporation, and Trouble has retired to a position as sysadmin for an artists' colony. But someone has started using Trouble's name and her old code to cause havoc, and Trouble and Cerise head back into the nets' netherworlds on a quest to stop the impersonator.
What strikes a reader today is how very small the world of Trouble and her friends is. Scott imagined the future century's computer networks to be something like the Grid of Tron, but cosier. The hackers and the syscops all know each other, at least by reputation, and there is no sense of the vast expanse that we now know the internet to be (somewhere around 200 million websites, 500 million people using the internet at least weekly, 300 billion emails sent each day, 50 million tweets per day, etc.—all of it increasing exponentially). If we think about where we have come technologically from 1994, the lesson we can learn for speculating about 2094 is that no matter what we imagine, it probably isn't imaginative enough.
But Trouble and Her Friends isn't primarily a novel of extrapolation. Its sights are set on a textual past. Part of Scott's purpose is to question the assumptions of the cyberpunk fiction published in the decade before it. Though there was a tinge of machismo to a lot of cyberpunk, it was more often a narrative of fierce individualism, a fetishization of lone cowboys against faceless corporations. Scott attacks this idea right from the title—even a legendarily successful individual in the cyberfrontier, Trouble, succeeds as part of a group. Some of her most individual acts (running out on Cerise, in particular) come to be the ones she most regrets. The final chapters of the book undermine the lone cowboy ideal quite literally, as Trouble takes on the role in a virtual showdown, and nothing works out very well. She and most of her friends survive, but the costs are large, and we're left to wonder if, perhaps, there isn't a better way.
What led Scott to present the nets as something that now seems small and provincial may have been her apparent desire to show that cyberpunk's glorification of the cowboy ethos is shallow and destructive. She needed to be able to demonstrate the interconnections and communities that lone cowboys hide. A novel, though, is a difficult medium for such a message. For all their capaciousness, novels struggle to render vividly what is socially vast. Novels thrive on the idea of individualism, because one of the things prose fiction does best is present one viewpoint at a time. Even the most communally-minded books, or the most narratively omniscient, are stuck putting one word after another, one sentence after another, and there is little opportunity for one effect visual art, for instance, can achieve: presenting lots of information all at once, with the viewer left to choose where to look and when. Vastness in novels is vastness filtered through a single perspective at a time.
Few writers of utopian fiction have imagined large and populous utopias, and many writers of communitarian stories have somehow needed to get rid of the majority of humanity (war, disease, famine) to create their ideal worlds. As readers, we can see the connections that link all of the events in Trouble's life (both real and virtual) because the landscape of that life is small and comprehensible, like a handful of scattered villages. Though it may seem odd to us now, as regular users of an incomprehensibly large internet, this smallness is also a contradiction of standard cyberpunk concepts; where other authors offer lone cowboys who zip around the globe, Scott presents a community of hackers and syscops inhabiting an internet that at its most nefarious feels like nothing more threatening than a seedy country fair.
Trouble's community is one of sexual identity as well as hacking: she's a lesbian, and within the novel gay hackers have formed their own affinity group. Here another cyberpunk trope gets transmogrified. Women characters were not absent from cyberpunk stories before Trouble and Her Friends, but they were usually heterosexual, and the tough-girl protagonists of some stories were enticing fantasy objects for hetero male readers. Scott keeps the tough girls, and they may remain enticing to straight guys, but they're not primarily that. The story ushers us into a world that is not only one where group and community forces are clear, but where the central community for the protagonists is homosexual.
Whether the novel's limited imagining of computer environments is a fatal flaw will depend on how much a story's technological background is important for individual readers, but for me it is minor compared to the novel's biggest weakness: flat, repetitive storytelling.
Trouble and Her Friends is bulked up and weighed down by tedious details. The problem is impossible to convey by quoting only a paragraph or two, because whether details are tedious depends very much on the context in which they are entombed. Science fiction is among the most mimetic of fictions, depending as it does on details to create a sense of reality in the reader's mind. What a reader requires of those details will be different depending on how unfamiliar the story's world is. If the world is basically our own with tweaks, a constant parade of details and description is suffocating unless it serves some other purpose. To envision the London described in Bleak House, we do not need all the words of the opening pages, but those words are rich not only in what they say but in how they say it. The second paragraph of Bleak House conveys the ubiquity and impenetrability of the fog by moving from the general first item ("Fog everywhere.") to one after another specific item ("Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats"). But that's not all—the language is alive and vivid (the fog creeps, lies, hovers, droops), but also full of music, whether the music of alliteration, repetition, or fragmentation: indeed, the grammatical structure of the sentences conveys nearly as much as the words themselves.
There is no shame in not writing quite so well as Charles Dickens, but if you are going to write a novel in which mimesis is vitally important to you, as it is apparently important to Melissa Scott, then you might as well at least try. Scott's prose gives readers nothing very much to do; it leads us from one thing to another with a plodding determination to avoid confusion, and a third of the way into the novel any reader who desires anything other than to follow along as we're led through a rather simple plot with rather straightforward characters will likely start skimming.
Scott's obsession with detail and her functional style of writing served her much better in her next novel, Shadow Man (1996), where the complexities of interstellar politics, society, and biology are given an extraordinary realism through the accumulation of detail, but despite presenting a much less familiar world and a much more complicated plot, Shadow Man is actually a shorter book than Trouble and Her Friends. Shadow Man has recently been reissued by the small Lethe Press, while Trouble and Her Friends is now back in print from the large Tor Books; it is the former that truly deserves rediscovery, however, and which, unlike Trouble and Her Friends, feels as imaginative and new today as it did when it first appeared.