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. []

Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera, by Ken Macleod (books 2008, 7)

A scorching, searing cyberpunk space opera. It has _everything_ in it: FTL starships, uploaded minds, nanotech, the Singularity, wormhole gateways… Absolutely stunning stuff.

Though on the downside, I did find it bit hard to follow some of the plot twists and turns. Specifically, it wasn’t always immediately obvious to me why some of the alliances and disputes between the various factions happened. I expect a more careful reading, or retracing of my steps, would have resolved those difficulties. But such was the pace of the plot that I didn’t want to.

I loved some of the terminology. Travelling faster than light, for example, is called ‘fittling’ (from FTL). The “technological singularity (what is this singularity thing, anyway?)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity is called the ‘hard rapture’. I especially like that Ken has grabbed the term ‘Rapture’ from the weirdo fundamentalists christians who believe Jesus is going to come back and sweep them all up to heaven. The “Googleplex (where Google live)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Googleplex (for example) becoming self-aware and sucking up everyone’s mindstate is far more likely, if you ask me. Which is not saying a lot about its likelihood…

One of the groupings of humanity that have survived through the hard rapture, and remain players on galactic stage, are called the Carlyles. They started out as a Glasgow gang, basically. They were based in something called ‘The Castle on the “Clyde (Glasgow’s river)”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Clyde ‘, which I’d like to hear more about. Then there’s AO: America Offline. They didn’t get uploaded because they weren’t connected to the net.

This means that the two main dialects of the language everyone speaks are called ‘American’ and ‘English’; but the ‘English’ is rendered partly in Scots. Good fun.

I haven’t read any of Ken’s stuff for a while (aside from “his blog (Ken MacLeod’s blog)”:http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/, obviously). That’s a situation I need to put right forthwith. But first I think I should go back to the start, and dig ??The Star Fraction?? out of the attic.