Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends

"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."

This book goes back a few years but it was my introduction to the writings of Melissa Scott as well as to the cyber punk genre and it is still my favourite cyber punk novel as well as my favourite work of Scott's.

India Carless, a.k.a. Trouble has tried to go straight. When the law cracks down on the wild frontier of cyberspace with an aggressive new bill which makes it possible for computer hackers to be convicted of armed robbery, Trouble knows that it's time to get out. Trouble was the best of the netwalkers, but the net had gone crazy now. What she once saw as high adventure is now simply suicide, so Trouble walks away from it all.

Away from the shadow world of the netwalkers -- professional hackers who operated in the grey areas of the old laws, cracking virtual IC(E) - Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic) - and outwitting the syscops of major corporations to steal data for a lucrative commission. Away from her friends in the netwalker community. Away from her professional partner and lover, Cerise. Trouble abandons everything she knows and forges a new, "legitimate" life for herself as the network administrator for a small artists' co-op.

Back to using her real name but living more of a lie as India Carless than she ever did as Trouble, India tries to convince herself that she is happy in her mundane but safe existence as a syscop -- almost legal, save for her occasional continued use of the "brainworm", illegal technology used to enhance the VR experience of the nets which Trouble had hardwired into her brain back in her hacker days. Life could be a lot worse.

Then Trouble resurfaces on the nets, but it's not India Carless. Someone has stolen her old cyber-identity and is cracking some major IC(E)s in a style not dissimilar to Trouble's old modus operandi, save that this Trouble brags loudly and widely about its work -- an indiscretion that could get the real Trouble into some real trouble indeed.

Thus, Trouble is drawn unwillingly back into her old life to defend her name and the life she has now. Many old friends from her hacker days -- including ex-lover Cerise -- resurface to help route out this new Trouble as well, and Trouble and her friends are launched into the most dangerous mission of their lives.

The heroines of Trouble and Her Friends are smart, savvy and sexy, and Melissa Scott creates a fascinating cultural mosaic in the near-future world which they populate. Scott's depiction of virtual reality cyberspace is intelligent and cohesive as is her vision of real space. The boundaries and crossovers between the two realms are also well thought out. VR is not just a gimmick in this novel but an integral and interesting part of the story, and the integration into VR made possible by the "brainworm" renders the action in the VR passages every bit as riveting and meaningful as the real space passages.

Strong characters, strong environments, strong story, Melissa Scott shows mastery of it all in Trouble and Her Friends.