On Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends (1994)

Scott’s queer cyberpunk novel opens with Cerise discovering that her lover and “cracker” partner in the “shadows,” Trouble, has left her and their apartment. The instigating event for this split is the passing of “Evans-Tinsdale” by the U.S. Congress, including an override of a Presidential veto. This bill brings “the nets” under the purview of the “real” world’s legal system. An alternative for legitimizing the nets is the Amsterdam Conventions, though little is said of how it differs besides granting an indeterminate degree of autonomy to those who work and live on the nets.

Three years later, Cerise works for a powerful multinational called Multiplane as its chief network security officer. Trouble is a “syscop” for her local region of the nets and is based out of an artists’ co-op, where she handles their network infrastructure and needs. An anonymous cracker claiming to be Trouble by using some of her old programs forces the two to pair back up when hacking Multiplane.

Both Cerise and Trouble stand out from the other crackers in that they belong to a mostly younger set of people who are “on the wire.” The “brainworm” is the novel’s novum for a direct nervous system interface to cyberspace. Besides being illegal, it is shunned by others for supposedly making it easier to operate on the nets. Scott’s version of Gibson’s cyberjockey opens up a range of possible modes of “anthropotechnical” sensation (to invoke a term of Shane Denson’s). Whereas Neuromancer only explains the representational element of cyberspace at the beginning exposition, Trouble and Her Friends presents a spectrum of possible physiological representations of computational “space” and puts it at the front of the action both in terms of how the characters enact their computational presence and of how the novel describes the space of the nets to the reader. While I grant a much stronger position of cyberjockey Case’s body in Neuromancer than is traditional for critics (excepting Sherryl Vint), the brainworm extends well beyond the Gibsonian ”jacking-in” conceit insofar as it allows Cerise and Trouble to interpret computational operations through all of their bodily senses. Furthermore, being on the wire does not obviate the need for legitimate coding expertise. Even when the worm is tuned to maximum sensitivity, which enables the cracker a finer grained response to the computational milieu, pre-written programs are still relied on for engaging with “IC(E),” “watchdogs,” user “icons,” and so on. In the decade since Neuromancer’s publication, cyberpunk has transitioned from the arcade screen to hacker collectives that coordinate via bulletin board systems (BBS).

Cerise and Trouble also confront heteronormative hate on the net, which is paired with the distrust of the brainworm. Indeed, being on the wire can be read as a queering of the prototypical “jacking in,” such that homophobia can in turn be registered in the resistance to characters on the wire. Using a brainworm means radically opening one’s experience to the nets, including a sensory leakage from the wired person. Facial gestures and feelings like pleasure and anxiety can emanate from those on the wire. Despite the freedom for self-presentation by way of virtual iconage, wired interactions on the net therefore bear an inexorable honesty and intimacy. Taking this principle to its limit, two people on the wire can exchange a “key” that establishes defenseless networked coupling for a shared sexual encounter. Cerise does this with the female icon of a net denizen by the name of Silk. This exchange inverts the orgasmic pleasure felt when surfing the nets and cracking into databases. For Silk uses the intimacy of their computational coitus to hack Cerise’s system.

Corporeal pleasure is baked into human-computer interfaces. When Trouble updates her brainworm to a new model, the installation involves an hours-long calibration process that elicits an intense sexual response. Trouble is not so much satisfied as she is primed for sexual contact. Given the fluidity with which the novel treats sexual feeling and cracking on the wire, Trouble’s and Cerise’s bodies register as the grounds for computation: that is, its material condition of possibility and a site of motivation for engaging with the net in the first place. Thanks to the wire, their bodies circumvent the interface of consciousness that would otherwise bottleneck human-computer operations. Bodies, therefore, are placed on equal footing with the speed and complexity of computational automation—not on their own, as seems to be the case for the free-floating mind of Neuromancer’s cyberspace, but in concert with the consciously prepared programs brought by the user onto the net.

(The installation scene is reminiscent of the black box, at the start of Frank Herbert’s Dune, into which Paul Atreides places his hand to prove his humanity. However, whereas Paul’s is a trial of mastering his own fear and thereby his mind [recall that “fear is the mindkiller”], installing the brainworm jumpstarts Trouble’s desire by establishing a newfound relation between mind and body.

Having a brainworm installed and tuned requires another person to do it, which means submitting to the other. Here, submission takes the form of receptivity rather than powerlessness in the face of domination. It prefigures the power of being on the wire: increased sensitivity to the nets. Readiness for the nets presents as a desire for human bodily intimacy that in turn guides the general mode of networked experience. The novel thereby foregrounds embodiment both as an integral component in the networked computation of Scott’s novel and as a driving force behind the social relations that contribute to the nets.

That Silk turns out to be a 15-year-old boy might be taken to redound to classical arguments promoting the freedom of identity on the Internet. However, this is not a case where a character achieves an external representation of their own internally regarded self-image. For Silk also turns out to be “newTrouble,” whose gender the characters in the novel frequently call into question. At stake is the patriarchal logic of control and mastery through submission as one-sided domination. This gendered characterization of an unknown character’s actions can be read in the language of Cerise and Trouble, who are convinced solely by the actions of newTrouble that he is, indeed, a “he.” The villain also ends up being a classic figure of power—an older man known on the nets as “the Mayor“—and more specifically is a caricature of the Gibsonian cyberjockey: alone in a room, pale and gaunt, clothed in computer hardware.

Transposed into recent internet culture wars, Trouble and Her Friends serves as a contemporary narrative about reactionary forces that seek to colonize mainstream forums on the internet against the proliferation of anti-patriarchal, anti-imperialist movements and discourses. Silk’s ploy against Cerise can be read as weaponizing the ambiguity of gender against explicitly queer characters. But I want to resist this reading because Silk ends up being sidelined almost as soon as the novel reveals him as newTrouble. He is the victim of the Mayor’s pernicious fear and hatred of queerness, killed via intravenous injection by the Major after being discovered to be on the wire. Again, “queer” in Scott’s novel means both anti-normative sexuality and the radical, corporeal sensitivity of the brainworm.

In the first case, the binary undermined is a stringent heteronormativity with all its attendant homophobia; in the second case, the binary undermined is the liberal humanist subject as primarily an intellect and secondarily a body—and a body that is, by default, white and male (following Carlen Lavigne and N. Katherine Hayles). The second, mind-body, binary also imposes strict boundaries between individuals, which we see undermined by the sharing of a “key” between Cerise and Silk.

Cerise and Trouble’s anger towards newTrouble transforms into solidarity with Silk, which enacts the kind of affinity that Donna Haraway mythologized in the cyborg as a figure that overwrites exclusionary identity politics. His youth serves as an allegory for the inchoateness of future socio-technical relations in the present (it’s worth noting here that the prose of the net is italicized and in the present tense, whereas the prose of the physical world is in past tense). And while that particular youth is stillborn, caught between the reactionary Mayor’s queerphobia and the nets’ desire for autonomy, it is only seemingly the case. The novel concludes with Trouble (and Cerise at her side) assuming the mantle of the Mayor as leader of the “Seahaven,” the space that serves as a hub for crackers, radicals, and artists at the forefront of the nets’ development.