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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.

Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2015, 443 p.

 Dream Paris cover

This is the sequel to Ballantyne’s earlier Dream London which I reviewed here. Its first sentence riffs on the famous opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Ballantyne’s comes closer to making sense though.

Seventeen year-old Anna Sinfield is trying to get her life together in what is left over after the fall of Dream London and the restoration of something like normality. She is given a fortune scroll by Mr Twelvetrees, a man with faceted, insect-like eyes. The scroll reveals she will meet her mother again, whom she had thought dead in Dream London’s demise; but it will be in Dream Paris. Twelvetrees has his own reasons for wishing her to go to there as he is an agent of the British Government. To protect her on the journey she is assigned a bodyguard, Francis, whose backpack trails a wire behind him – Theseus style – so they can find their way back. Both the English Channel and the rivers in Dream France are infested by aquatic dinosaurs and the French distinction between the second person pronouns tu and vous has become highly elaborate with up to 17 degrees of superiority/inferiority capable of being expressed. (Ballantyne’s treatment of this linguistic quirk wasn’t entirely consistent, though.)

There are some longueurs, particularly on Anna’s and Francis’s journey to Paris and even some while they are there. To Anna’s disappointment her mother sends several messages to the effect that she should not come. But Anna has the fortune scroll. She will meet her mother no matter what. And it seems everyone, the revolutionary Committee for Public Safety (a very slight adjustment in title by Ballantyne to the one in our history,) the Prussians who have been at war with Dream France for centuries, the British Government, has their own reasons for finding Anna’s mother.

Francis’s wire (in the Dream World its mechanism becomes apparent) criss-crosses the streets of Paris and provides any British citizens stranded in the Dream World – or indeed anyone else – who wish to do so with the means to find their way (back) to London. It also allows travel in the opposite direction.

In the Dream World the counting/numbering system is peculiar. In Dream London there had been no prime numbers, and mathematicians went mad; here there are no fractions, making shapes and geometry different. The chapters count down in the dream numbering system from Silver then Twenty-three through numbers such as blue and (a feeling of fulfilment) down to Zero. Count-downs are of course a harbinger of a significant event. In this regard mention of an Integer Bomb is a foreshadowing.

Dream Paris suffers from the drawback of most sequels in that the unique nature of its predecessor cannot be repeated. The plot here is not so much one of restoration of the natural order of things as it was in Dream London (even if that wasn’t truly achieved) as that of a thriller; albeit one with elements that verge on being bonkers and a vision of an extremely odd Paris.

Pedant’s corner:- “The sound of violins wove their way..” (the sound wove its way,) a moments rest (moment’s,) “it was important not show any emotion” (not to show,) Mr Twelvetrees’ (x2, Mr Twelvetrees’s,) “I folded up the wallet up” (one “up” is sufficient.) “It fell back onto road,” (onto the road,) “swept away in whirl” (in a whirl,) sat (x2; seated, or sitting,) towns of unspeakably loveliness (unspeakable,) “had a wall around it to” (too,) “I don’t mean like strong like expresso is at home” (one like is enough,) but this gentlemen (gentleman,) Entschuldigen (Entschuldigung,) for hundreds miles (hundreds of miles.) “‘And now I must now report back’” (only one “now” is necessary.) “‘Someone came in rushing in’” (one “in” only,) “from a word written on the side ‘Abattoir’” (is missing a full stop after side,) “‘We are both that same’” (the same,) that that (only one needed,) “that feeling of the meaningless of it all” (meaninglessness,) “that complimented the taste “ (complemented,) “right next me”(to me,) “‘if you wish to continue, than I shall wish you good luck’” (then I shall wish you..) the crowd were (the crowd was, [as found later on the same page,]) placenta (of a fish????) “‘And now the rest of the table were doing the same’” (the rest was….) “I didn’t want it know” (to know,) “‘You think you could you kill your dinner?’” (You think you could kill your dinner,) teeth made for ripping flash (flesh.) Men and woman (women,) the point of infinity were the two sides converged (where the two sides,) miniscule (minuscule.) “At that they all gazed at me open-mouthed at that” (only one “at that” I feel,) “‘I grew up here.Surely’” (is missing the word break,) who knows what he was doing (should be “knew what”; or “is doing”,) “More to the point would have you done otherwise?” (would you have done,) “‘Francis what’s going?’” (what’s going on,) to note the Francis had done (that Francis had,) “‘You don’t see very happy, Anna’” (seem,) a welcoming committee were drawn up (a committee was drawn up,) sipping at glass (at a glass,) “A child. What had happened to their eyes” (its eyes.)

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