Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (Books 2021, 22)

Talk about not remembering books: I’ve got to ask myself whether I ever did read this one. I remembered one thing from it, but it’s not how I remembered it. When people jack in to the matrix they use headsets – ‘trodes’ – with electrodes that connect to their temples.

There is a transition between the real world and cyberspace when they connect, and I had this memory of one cowboy (people who enter the matrix or cyberspace are called ‘cowboys’ or ‘jockeys’) who had a set of trodes that made the transition feel like the world was falling apart. I’ve been half waiting for that bit through these three books. Here’s a quote:


‘Yes,’ she said, and Tick’s room was gone, its walls a flutter of cards, tumbling and receding, against the bright grid, the towering forms of data.

‘Nice transition, that,’ she heard him say. ‘Built into the trodes, that is. But of drama…’

So that must be the bit I remembered, but if you had asked me I’d have said I thought it came a book or two earlier, and was mentioned more than once.

But what of the book itself? It keeps up the standard, maybe raises it slightly. We have four interconnected stories, four viewpoint characters, told in alternating chapters. One of the stories – that of Kumiko, who is experiencing the flutter of cards, above – isn’t really relevant, in the sense that it doesn’t drive the plot at all. Things that happen around her do affect the main plot, but she’s not really aware of them.

What surprised me about this and the three books overall, is how much they really are a trilogy. I had the impression that they were considered only to be very loosely connected at best; essentially three stories set in the same milieu. But in fact not only do characters recur, everything here ties back to the events of Neuromancer, which happened some fourteen years before.

All very worth reading if you haven’t already.

Count Zero by William Gibson (Books 2021, 21)

The only thing I remembered about this was its opening line, which is nowhere near as memorable as that of its predecessor.

It’s also not as good as Neuromancer, by a long shot. Difficult second album syndrome, I’d imagine. It came out a year or two later. It’s not actively bad, don’t get me wrong. But it just doesn’t have the spark, it never quite catches fire, you know?

Still, plenty of gritty Sprawl-drama, and the obligatory trip to a space station.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (Books 2021, 20)

I’m on a bit of a reread thing at the moment, partly because I moved some books around recently, which revealed some older ones.

This is another one that stands up really well. It has some amusing out-of-time moments, like ‘three megabytes of hot RAM’: imagine having that much computer memory! And the well-known geostationary satellite over Manhattan impossibility.1 But we don’t let those things bother us.

What’s interesting is just how much it influenced The Matrix. It was always fairly obvious that the Wachowskis named their virtual world after Gibson’s cyberspace, though Doctor Who got there first, and possibly others did too. But there’s a scene in Neuromancer where Case sees drifting lines of code overlaid on the reality that he’s perceiving. Very much seems the inspiration for Neo seeing the Matrix.

Anyway, it’s still a fine story, with some striking prose.

  1. You can only have a geostationary satellite over the equator, in case you don’t know. ↩︎

Footnotes Revisited

Having looked again over yesterday’s piece, I’ve had a slight change of heart.

As I’m sure you noticed, I made a comment in the footnote to the effect that I thought that my misremembering of Neuromancer‘s famous opening line was better than the actual one. I no longer think that’s the case.

Gibson obviously knew what he was doing. “The sky above the port” is more euphonious than my “over the port.”

Glad we got that sorted out.

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


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. ↩︎