Many readers categorically loved it – Trouble and Her Friends won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1995 and has been called Scott’s towering masterwork – while others just didn’t seem to get it. The Publishers Weekly review from 1994 concludes with this: "Scott (Dreamships; Burning Bright) seems more interested in using her command of the genre to explore such subjects as the importance of friendship, the strength and intelligence of women, lesbian eroticism and the workings of community” and an Amazon.com review from 1999 states “Although Scott's characters engage the attention, her endless descriptions of netwalking become quite monotonous…”
For me, this was – and is – a landmark novel. It’s interesting that this cyberpunk adventure, which contains very little actual sexual content, was called “lesbian eroticism” in 1994 when it would be considered tame compared to the genre fiction that’s being released today. I’ve read young adult novels recently with more controversial sexual content than Trouble and Her Friends! It begs the question: if the characters were straight, would the reviews for this novel have been different back in ‘94? And how strongly would this novel be embraced if it were originally published today?
Another major reason I consider this a historically significant novel is the same reason why some other readers panned it. It’s boldly unconventional – unusual characterization, nonlinear narrative, measured pacing, cerebral conclusion, etc. Scott created two strong, endearing feminist characters: females succeeding – no, thriving – in the male-dominated world of hacking. India Carless (aka Trouble) is just as tough and intelligent and sexy as any of the ass-kicking heroines featured in some of today’s bestselling sagas, like Eve Dallas, Anita Blake, Maxine Kiss, Mercy Thompson, Honor Harrington, Ivy Tamwood, etc.
Here’s just a sample from early on in the story, when Cerise learns that her world has been turned upside down when legislation passes that redefines cyberspace as a legal jurisdiction and establishes laws governing all electronic activity. In this sequence, she enters the net to see how her virtual world has changed in the blink of an eye:
“Alice in wonderland, Alice down the rabbit hole, Alice out in cyberspace, flung along the lines of data, flying across fields of light, the night cities that live only behind her eyes. Power rides her fingers, she moves from datashell to datashell, walking the nets like the ghost of a shadow, her trail vanishing behind her as she goes. She carries power in the dark behind her eyes.
And she needs it, tonight, in the chaos that whirls between the islands of the corporate spaces, their boundaries marked by heaps and new whorls of glittering IC(E) [Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic)]. The bulletin boards, the great sink of the BBS where all the lines of data eventually meet and merge and pool into a sink of slow transfer, limited nodes, and low-budget users, are in upheaval. The familiar icons and signpost-symbols that guide the unwary are gone completely, erased by their owners and remade in new and somehow threatening form. Icons whirl past her, some representing people she knows, has worked with. She smells fear sharp as sweat, hears the constant rustling murmur of the transactions that surround her as the brainworm translates what is truly only electrons, data transferred from computer to computer, to sensation in her brain…”
To answer my own question, if this novel were originally published today, Melissa Scott would very likely be a household name and Trouble would be a beloved, iconic character. Instead this novel has been largely forgotten.
In 1994, Melissa Scott was an author ahead of her time. Maybe now, almost two decades later, Trouble and Her Friends will get the mainstream love it so rightfully deserves….
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.