Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Trouble and Her Friends

Trouble and Her Friends took me a loooong time to read. I believe I started it in 2014, when I stumbled across its existence in a Chicago public library. I dropped it after about a hundred or so pages, only to pick it up again in summer of 2015. On Feb 9th, I decided to brute force my way through the remaining 150 pages. I finished it, but it was a real struggle.

Ugh. There were so many elements that were interesting and successful inversions of cyberpunk's cliched tropes, but they were all hampered by a narrative slower than an iceberg, a narrative hyperbolically committed to conventions (including a grotesquely neat and happy ending), and some excruciating scenes of cyberspace that must've been cliché by 1986, let alone 1994. Which is a real shame, as Scott's command of characterization was top notch and her squeamishness around violence really worked in the novel's favour. Instead of the usual "might makes right," hyper-violence that permeates cyerpunk's technology, Scott opts for intelligence, guile, and most importantly, pure computer skills such as coding. An implicit conclusion of the novel is that queer folk are intrinsically more skilled at hacking as both are outsider, marginalized groups.

The implicit metaphor that hackers (or crackers as they're annoyingly dubbed in the novel) are a counterpublic akin to the queer community was extremely compelling. Some of the best bits in this novel come from the intra-hacker politics and their intersection with identity politics: continuously, Trouble and her friends are undermined due to their gender... not in any obvious or irritating way, but subtly, which works quite well. There's a casual acceptance of queer identities in this future society, but still the recognition that corporatism wasn't ideal bedfellows for queersat least in 1994.

Pinkwashing is a portmanteau referring to the smoothing of inconvenient waves of queers with marketing and consumerism aimed at enveloping those queers within the warm and suffocating embrace of capitalism. Once the machinery of capitalism realized that queer folk consumed just as much as hetero folk, products and lifestyles were aimed at this "new" demographic. We should remind ourselves that one usage of the word "queer" refers to an explicitly and destabilizing political position, one counter to the metanarratives that comprise heteronormativity. These queer folk, then, had their political volatility exhausted through their willful participation in capitalism; they became "good" subjects. This is the opposite result that Scott's novel predicts. In her future society, queer folk are socially accepted but still exist on the fringes of society. They are not "good" subjects.

However, this might be reductive and unfair to Scott. One of the narrative strands running through the novel is Trouble's lover/friend/ex Cerise and her employment as a security specialist for a corporation they used to hack. It's implied that Cerise's individuality, that which makes her attractive and unique, is squashed under the boot heel of the conglomerate. That is to say, Scott expresses, in an unsubtle fashion, that "selling out" is an undesirable outcome. Selling out isn't really a concern of 2016's youth culture and hasn't been since the late 1990s.

In this way, Scott's novel is more interesting as a document of retrofuturism than as prescient science fiction. As I said, even in 1994, the fetishistic depictions of hacking were clichéd. Trouble and Her Friends is positively obsessed with technology, with the narrator lavishing endless paragraphs with details of hackers typing, plugging and unplugging cords, carrying around equipment, and countless mentions of seemingly "technical" words such as "routines," "programs," and other cool new terms (relative to 1994). Similarly, its neverending descriptions of cyberspace are so old-fashioned and quaint: neon avenues; literal walls of ice representing IC(E); glowing logos; security programs literalized as watchdogs. Again, Neuromancer and the stories in Burning Chrome were from the mid 80s, and ten years is an eternity with regards to technology.

Thus, Trouble and Her Friends is a great example of postmodernism as formulated by the great obfuscating thinker Fredric Jameson. Let's remind ourselves of the symptoms he identifies as indicating postmodernism:
  1. a new depthlessness
  2. a consequent weakening of historicity
  3. a whole new type of emotional ground tone
  4. relationships of all this to a whole new technology
  5. mutations in the lived experience of built space itself
Let's start with the last item. The novel depicts a mutation in experience vis-a-vis built space by literal wires connecting computing machines to human brain tissue. This new connection facilitates conceptualizing a completely virtual space, a new space built and constructed by technology, which in turns, relates to the fourth item. These new technologies (both retrograde and futuristic simultaneously) establish new relationships with humans, one of codependency—the machines need people for electrical power, the people need machines for political (discursive) power. A revised dialectic emerges; a new emotional tone emerges concomitantly, one of a waning affect. Characters are not required to feel as the labour of affect has been outsourced to virtuality; cyberspace produces affect for the wired users; in Trouble and Her Friends, this is literalized, for example, as touching IC(E) leads to real ("real") physical pain for the user. This, of course, introduces a phenomenological quandary: which comes first, the pain or the experience of the pain? or, is there even a difference? This might be an extreme example of the weakening of historicity, taking it to a microcosmic scale more minute than Jameson may have meant.

But, we can expand our gaze and consider the prescient and paradoxically retrograde mobilization of science fiction tropes. In the logic of postmodernism, the past is no longer something to orient ourselves within our present but instead a vast pool of images from which to draw on repeatedly. Postmodernism and thus Trouble and Her Friends, "randomly and without principle but with gusto, cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles" as Jameson writes in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (19).

Cyberspace, as Adam Roberts writes in his book, Science Fiction, is a literalizing of alterity. He argues that there exists
a close enough affinity between SF as literature and the reality of existence in the West today under the cultural logic critics call ‘postmodernism’. We encountered this earlier, in Baudrillard’s argument that contemporary culture involves us in a supersession of reality by simulacra. The extent to which postmodernism as a cultural logic depends upon today’s advanced technology is rarely stressed by critics of that phenomenon; but it is precisely that technology, and most especially today’s technologies of mass reproduction, the TV, the computer, that determines and defines postmodernity. And it is the coming together of TV and computer that informs cyberspace, one of the most potent of the technological metaphors to come out of SF. (124-5)
The screen comes to stand in for new perception, or perhaps more accurately, a paradigmatic perception, one that overrides and replaces the pre-existing multiplicity perspectives accessible to us. The screen is monolithic. We all watch the same screen.

In 1993, Scott Bukatman identified a new discursive motion in contemporary culture, the emergence of the “terminal identity”: “an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen” (Terminal Identity 9). In another piece, on Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers, I'll say more on this double-articulation. To keep focus on Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends, I'll mention that Bukatman's use of the word "terminal" is, of course, a pun: terminal meaning final as well as the computer terminal into which we plug. Our identity, complete and now objective, exists only in virtuality, a replacement of reality with rapidly advancing technology. Trouble and Cerise find meaning in their lives thanks to their terminal identities. Without their labour, without their "cracker" personas, they are meaningless. The hyperbolically upbeat end of the novel has Trouble becoming "Mayor" of cyberspace; from her lowly corporate position to on the run from the law all the way to be credentialized by the State to uphold law and order within a virtual space. Her virtual identity comes to replace her actual identity (her real name is India, but it's rarely mentioned). The virtual completes Trouble.

This completes another foray into my continued efforts to cover critical theory and cyberpunk literature. I'm working on something... I'm not sure what exactly, but this piece, and others to follow, will poke and prod at cyberpunk until something productive tumbles out. I'm using these brief fumbles in the dark as a brainstorm exercise. Or perhaps imagine these as lecture notes for a seminar from which fruitful discussion will spring. Hopefully all of this will come to something. Hopefully.

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