The Colour of Television

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

What do you make of the above sentence?*

Pyrotechnic? Emblematic? Iconic? Redolent of a new sensibility? A clarion call for the new digital age?

Or did it perhaps elicit a bemused, “Eh, what? Come again?”

It is of course the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer which thrust cyberpunk onto the novel-reading SF public all those years ago now and to which I alluded in my review of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream Paris.

Many saw it as the perfect embodiment of the new style of SF Gibson was promulgating. Yet to me it’s not quite in the league of the wake up calls that “Come on and hear!” or “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” were in musical terms. It’s not as pithy for a start. And when you begin to parse it any meaning it might contain slips away.

The sentence has been taken to mean descriptive of an oppressive, lowering sky, deep grey, I assume. (The colour of battleships, painted for action?)

Its first six words are unexceptional. But what, pray, is the colour of television?
I have no difficulty visualising the colour of a (or the) television (which word is still in the back of my mind suffixed by “set”.) Nowadays they’re nearly all black but back when Neuromancer came out in 1984, they could be all sorts, white, blue, pink, yellow. Some even had wood on them; or if it was plasticky, what I used to call pseud wood.

But television, with no defining article, is an abstract noun. Used in this way the word usually means the industry which produces the programmes it displays, not the apparatus they are shown on. And how can an abstract noun have colour? (Another possibility would be the band called Television, also fairly abstract, but that is spelled with a capital T.) It’s not even the apparatus’s screen that could be implied. Nowadays they’re uniformly blackish when the set is switched off; back in the day they were a deep olive green colour. That would be a sky too odd even for Science Fiction – except perhaps off Earth (which this sky wasn’t.)

Then there is that “dead channel”. I don’t suppose the young things these days know what that could possibly look like, when is a channel ever dead now? But then if the channel wasn’t broadcasting (the only possible interpretation of “dead”) the screen wasn’t even a uniform colour. It was spitty and specky, flecked with black and white, displaying what physicists call white noise; not a particular coherent signal as it was designed to do, but any signal – and every signal – picked up in the absence of a modulated transmission. Have you ever seen a flecked, spitty, specky sky? I haven’t. Not then, not now.

That sentence destroyed Neuromancer for me. From that point on I could not trust the author or what he attempted to describe. (I know about unreliable narrators but this was of a different order, it was in the omniscient third person for a start.) I didn’t have quite the same negative response to Gibson’s next novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive but still couldn’t really warm to him.

Ballantyne gave us, “The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key,” which makes a bit more sense, but only a bit, and he did have the grace to come back to it at the end.

*For myself I think the sky was the colour of an author, straining, unsuccessfully, for effect.

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4 comments

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  1. Martin McCallion

    I think you might be taking your “Pedant’s Corner” a bit too far here, Jack.

    By which I mean, don’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 I also always took it as reference to the Doors’ song “My Eyes Have Seen You,” that goes, “… under the television sky! Television sky!” Although looking it up now to remind myself which song it was, I find that lyrics sites at least think it’s “television skies.” But that doesn’t change my interpretation.

    The interesting thing is how TVs changed after that. Once digital arrived, a non-functional channel was usually blue, which evokes quite a different sky-based mood. And now they’re usually black with text saying “BBC3 is now available on the web,” or similar.

  2. Eric Brown

    Hi Jack,

    For me, the dead television line didn’t work for the reasons you’ve mentioned above, and one other. It’s hard to use simile in SF because the object to which the writer likens something must, for the reader, be in the here and now. Which, to my mind, immediately undercuts the sense of futurity and realism the writer is attempting to achieve. Gibson was writing about a future in which televisions might not even exist: the very act of mentioning television was anachronistic. Despite the opening line, however, I enjoyed the book.

  3. jackdeighton

    Martin,
    It worked for you. Fine.
    It didn’t work for me.
    I can’t see it as at all poetic, merely baffling, and I still think Gibson overreached himself by trying too hard. Kill your darlings and all that.

  4. jackdeighton

    Eric,
    You’ve hit it right on the head with the anachronism thing.
    The book was ….. okay.
    I wasn’t inspired to keep up with Gibson slavishly though.

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