Trouble and her Friends, Melissa Scott

Tor, 1994, 379 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85733-0

Has it already been five years since the end of cyberpunk? Even though only half a decade passed between the release of Trouble and her Friends and me reading it, this novel seems much more dated than even works from the eighties.

The plot is unmistakably cyberpunk as we know it: A hacker retires after the adoption of some stringent anti-hacking laws, leaving her lover as easily as she leaves her old job. A few years later, another hacker steals her name (“Trouble”) and attracts unhealthy attention from authorities, who think it’s the old Trouble who’s doing the jobs. Now Trouble must ally herself with her old lover in order to catch the hacker who stole her name…

Beyond the “closing off the wild west” atmosphere, there’s not much new or innovative here. (Any SF novel blurb beginning triumphantly by “In less than a hundred years from now” is hopelessly naive) Compounding the problem of staleness is that Scott is content with recycling the cyberpunk clichés without modification. Of course, the weather is screwed up. Of course, cyberspace is a three-dimensional virtual area filled with colorful shapes. Of course the best hackers plug themselves in the matrix with a direct neural interface. Of course, the big corporations are evil and scheme against governments. Or course… Trouble and her Friends has fewer relevance to the real-world than to the cyberpunk universe first defined by Gibson and his acolytes. Unfortunately, most readers have been there before to see the same things.

No doubt that fans of the book will herald Scott’s usage of lesbian protagonists as “fresh and innovative”, but is it, really? Sexual definition was a staple of cyberpunk (with the real/online identity dichotomy) well before Trouble and her Friends. And the original cyberpunks had at least more subtlety than to underline their characters with heavy-handed “Boo-hoo, we’re gays and everyone hates us” gloom. (Missing the point that in cyberpunk novels everyone hates each other.)

Scott also mixes feminism in her ideological viewpoint… which would have been fine if she hadn’t also underlined the idea with big honking “SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION!” authorial messages everywhere in the text. Generally, I find progressive messages more efficient when presented in a matter-of-fact fashion, not the strident “We’re persecuted! You’re Nazis!” wailing tone of Trouble and her Friends. Scott tries to have it both ways by presenting a far-away future with yesterday’s prejudices.

Said far-away (late twenty-first century) future become even more ridiculous when the technologies used are already so primitive compared to what we’re anticipating for the next decade. Obviously, Scott is more interested in relationship issues than coherent extrapolation.

Which would have actually been fine if it hadn’t dragged down the narrative by at least two hundred extra pages. For its length, not a lot happens in Trouble and her Friends. It takes a long time for the novel to get moving, and sagacious readers will find themselves skimming over the reams of monotonous prose that’s simply not worth the trouble: Scott ain’t Gibson and this is a wannabee net-novel with your grandma’s writing style on Prozac.

Still, even despite the unsubtle sexual politics, dated future, unoriginal extrapolation and stuffy prose, Trouble and her Friends isn’t all that bad. Readers of the genre will recognize the place: Kind of a lesbian SF Harlequin. With appropriate skimming, a fun read for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

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