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Under the Television Skies

In The Colour of Television Jack Deighton questions the worth of the famous opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.1

Jack questions its meaning, and describes it as “an author, straining, unsuccessfully, for effect.” I commented:

[D]on’t take it so literally. It was obviously meant to mean “the screen of a television set,” but writing’s all about deleting unnecessary words, as Orwell told us.

I always took it to mean a stormy grey sky. Not literally speckled like an old telly on a channel where there was only static, but that was certainly what he was going for. Imagine that roiling, churning, grey-black-white melange, converted into a sky of a similar colour palette.

It’s so evocative, so memorable, it’s almost poetry.

Plus there’s The Doors connection:

I also always took it as reference to the Doors’ song “My Eyes Have Seen You,” that goes, “… under the television sky! Television sky!”

Lyrics sites — and my ears, this evening — say it’s actually plural: “television skies!” But that doesn’t make any difference.

Anyway, I’ve always loved it — that opening, in particular. I mean, I’m fond of the book, but don’t go back to it that often; but the opening is unforgettable.2

In having a look around before writing this, I discovered that there’s an extract on Gibson’s site, which reminds me that its all that good. Reading that extract, what think of most is the beats, or Hunter S Thompson.

And interestingly it isn’t done with the sky after the first line:

you couldn’t see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky

and:

By day, the bars down Ninsei were shuttered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting, under the poisoned silver sky.

Which last point suggests that Jack’s over-literal concern about the meaning of the opening might have an answer: maybe the sky was literally that staticy colour of an old TV between channels. If so, I don’t think we ever got a reason for it. But it’s implied there has been at least one war in the not-too-distant past of the novel.

Opening lines are so important. To my mind Gibson’s is up there on that bright, cold day in April, just around Barstow on the edge of the desert, with an exploding grandmother.

But to each their own, of course.


  1. I always remember it as “… over the port…”, which frankly I think is better. []
  2. Even if I misremember it, as described previously. []

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  • Martin McCallion mentioned this on devilgate.org.

  • Martin McCallion mentioned this on devilgate.org.