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First lines: Neuromancer

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It occurred to me, in the comments of my review for Life Expectency, that I can sometimes encapsulate my dislike for a particular book in an analysis of that oh-so-important-and-overrated first line.

Such a one is William Gibson’s vastly-overrated, thankfully-no-longer-very-influential, Hugo- and Nebula-winning Neuromancer.

The book begins:

The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.

Nobody, ever, not ever, not even in my “science fiction as literature” class in university, ever points out that this is a blunder.

A television tuned to a dead channel shows static, snow — a random and shifting collection of little black and white rectangles accompanied by audio white noise.

No earthly sky has ever presented such an image.

What Gibson clearly meant was “…the color of a television that was off,” or “…the color of the screen of a dead television.”

And nobody ever points this out.

The rest of the book is equally as pretentious, as obnoxious, and as senseless as its first line. No wonder the lit crit establishment went orgasmic over the damned thing.

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Written by [IMH]

17 March 2006 at 10:22 am

Posted in Literature

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  1. I’ve been reading that book to my wife during our daily commute (we carpool).

    We both thought the opening line was a good example of descriptive writing.

    We both interpreted the line as describing a sky that was overcast, with cloud cover reflecting the lights of the city below.

    Where we live, the effect is a dimly glowing orange ceiling over our home, as we live in a residential area with orange-colored streetlights providing most of the nightly illumination.

    I have also seen the more TV static-like effect of an urban center on an overcast sky, and had no trouble envisioning exactly that sort of grim, dirty, staticky glow over everything in Chiba.

    Maybe nobody points it out as a mistake because, far from being a mistake, it’s actually a real phenomenon and exactly what the author intended to describe.

    Now, if you want an example of truly badly written “cyberpunk”, I strongly recommend Red Robe on the principle that a burden shared is a burden halved.

    stutefish

    17 March 2006 at 11:59 pm

  2. Yeah, I agree with this stutefish guy. I also interpreted this line as an overcast, urban lgihts kind of deal. And I too, have seen the sky fit this description. Though I doubt I’d have thought to describe it so beautifully. This is, by the way, my favorite opening line of any book I’ve read. Not my favorite book (though I like it a lot), but by far my favorite opening line.
    That line made me read the book. An act which has been repeated, and never regretted.
    Also, I’m not really sure what you mean when you say Neuromancer’s no longer “influential” when movies like the Matrix still ring in recent memory. I’m not making a judgement on those movies, just pointing out how much they got from Neuromancer.

    Ghost-Pirate

    4 April 2006 at 4:38 am

  3. The influence I was referring to was in written SF, where cyberpunk was more or less killed off by Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In case you don’t recall, back in the late ’80s, every second or third SF book was cyberpunk. Now there are a few, but very few.

    And, sorry, but a television that is tuned is on, and a dead channel gives static, and I’ve been living in a city of 14 million for over two years now, and the sky ain’t never looked like static. Overcast with urban lights — not static-looking at all. The sky often resembles a TV which is off, when the overcast is thick and low. But not static.

    As to The Matrix, the debt it owes Neuromancer in particular is no larger than what it owes Vinge’s “True Names”, cyberpunk in general, Japanese anime, manga, and superficially understood freshman philosophy classes.

    Ian

    4 April 2006 at 5:30 am

  4. Sorry, Ian. I’m with your other two commenters. Crappy, overcast, smoggy and underlit by the city below was precisely the image that line put in my mind.

    And I rather enjoyed Neuromancer, and most everything else Gibson has written.

    Kevin Baker

    4 April 2006 at 6:48 am

  5. Guess I’ll just have to settle for “lone voice in the wilderness” on this one. πŸ™‚

    Gibson is, in fact, a good writer. His unproduced script for Alien 3 would, potentially, have been the best in the series (Hicks was the hero, Ripley was barely in it, and the escalation of the menace was fraggin’ brilliant). But I remain steadfast in my disdain for Neuromancer. And if I’m more or less alone in that, so be it.

    Ian

    4 April 2006 at 9:38 pm

  6. I know I’m sounding in late on this one — just spotted it. I’ve always found the opening sentence to fit with the “techno-style” metaphors Gibson used throughout the novel. I admit a “dead channel” shows static, although the color is dynamic — ever changing. But in the world of Neuromancer this seemed like a good way to something that is “nature,” and not technology. That is to say, the narrator sees the world through technology that controls culture and society in the novel.

    William Jones

    17 November 2006 at 5:42 am

  7. So be it. Lone Voice in the Wilderness it is. Call me Mr. Iconoclast. πŸ™‚

    Ian

    20 November 2006 at 2:12 pm

  8. Wow, that’s a beautiful opening line. I think that a author that comes off as silly, pretension, or nonsentical is better then one that is boring safe and cliche at least. He might have failed you as a reader, but at least he tried to give you an enjoyable experiance. Although I think if what you said was right: That he ment to say the color is the same as a TV turned off then he’s an idiot and dumber then a 3rd grader, because even a 3rd grader would know the difference and even if the author didn’t the editor WOULD know the difference and should have corrected it. Ha ha. That would be pretty funny. Two retarded people help publish a book. LOL

    Blue Screen of Death

    30 January 2007 at 7:54 pm

  9. BSoD, I’m afraid I can’t extract too much sense from what you wrote.

    You begin with a false choice. There are certainly more options than “silly, pretension, or nonsentical” and “boring safe and cliche”. I’ll take “none of the above”, myself.

    I doubt very much that William Gibson’s intent with Neuromancer was to give me an enjoyable “experiance”, because I know that he’s fully capable of doing it — his unused script for Alien 3 was almost unspeakably brilliant and fun.

    The rest of what you wrote is impenetrable, because your grasp of English grammar seems to be even looser than your grasp of correct spelling.

    Ian

    30 January 2007 at 9:11 pm

  10. You’ve missed the point of the openning line of Gibson’s book. The imagery is that of a sky polluted with “grey” industrial waste, the word “dead” implys that a station has gone off the air – something is wrong, technology is broken, and those running the station may be dead, or abandoned their post. The use of “television” immediately makes us begin with a concentration on technology. The sentence is meant to set the tone for the remainder of the book and does so brilliantly. A future of broken, bleak technology, and something is wrong…

    Joe

    13 August 2007 at 4:58 pm

  11. Joe: No, I didn’t miss the point, I got it. Problem was, the point was made with an inapt metaphor. A dead station that is off the air gives you static. Black and white flecks, not gray. A television that is off is gray. For a comparison to work as a metaphor, the thing being compared has to actually be what it is. Gibson fudged it to work the word “dead” in because it was less accurate but fitted his need better. But he still fudged it.

    Ian

    15 August 2007 at 7:52 pm

  12. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of books that were far more pretentious, obnoxious and senseless than Neuromancer – and the writers are held at much higher regard than William Gibson. I got a completely different opinion from yours from reading this book. I don’t believe there could have been a better line to paint the picture of the story that followed.

    Regardless of all this, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if they didn’t get it. I am sure you aren’t alone on this, just vastly outnumbered.

    Jason Smith

    18 September 2007 at 12:10 pm

  13. My take on this line is that so much lights from the neon jungle of Tokyo were bouncing back from the atmosphere causing the sky to look like a TV tuned to a dead channel (snow) and all the noise of the large city would create a sort of white noise heard and, if you use your imagination, felt around you.

    digitalmick

    2 July 2008 at 2:24 pm


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First lines: Neuromancer

with 13 comments

It occurred to me, in the comments of my review for Life Expectency, that I can sometimes encapsulate my dislike for a particular book in an analysis of that oh-so-important-and-overrated first line.

Such a one is William Gibson’s vastly-overrated, thankfully-no-longer-very-influential, Hugo- and Nebula-winning Neuromancer.

The book begins:

The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.

Nobody, ever, not ever, not even in my “science fiction as literature” class in university, ever points out that this is a blunder.

A television tuned to a dead channel shows static, snow — a random and shifting collection of little black and white rectangles accompanied by audio white noise.

No earthly sky has ever presented such an image.

What Gibson clearly meant was “…the color of a television that was off,” or “…the color of the screen of a dead television.”

And nobody ever points this out.

The rest of the book is equally as pretentious, as obnoxious, and as senseless as its first line. No wonder the lit crit establishment went orgasmic over the damned thing.

Written by [IMH]

17 March 2006 at 10:22 am

Posted in Literature

13 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’ve been reading that book to my wife during our daily commute (we carpool).

    We both thought the opening line was a good example of descriptive writing.

    We both interpreted the line as describing a sky that was overcast, with cloud cover reflecting the lights of the city below.

    Where we live, the effect is a dimly glowing orange ceiling over our home, as we live in a residential area with orange-colored streetlights providing most of the nightly illumination.

    I have also seen the more TV static-like effect of an urban center on an overcast sky, and had no trouble envisioning exactly that sort of grim, dirty, staticky glow over everything in Chiba.

    Maybe nobody points it out as a mistake because, far from being a mistake, it’s actually a real phenomenon and exactly what the author intended to describe.

    Now, if you want an example of truly badly written “cyberpunk”, I strongly recommend Red Robe on the principle that a burden shared is a burden halved.

    stutefish

    17 March 2006 at 11:59 pm

  2. Yeah, I agree with this stutefish guy. I also interpreted this line as an overcast, urban lgihts kind of deal. And I too, have seen the sky fit this description. Though I doubt I’d have thought to describe it so beautifully. This is, by the way, my favorite opening line of any book I’ve read. Not my favorite book (though I like it a lot), but by far my favorite opening line.
    That line made me read the book. An act which has been repeated, and never regretted.
    Also, I’m not really sure what you mean when you say Neuromancer’s no longer “influential” when movies like the Matrix still ring in recent memory. I’m not making a judgement on those movies, just pointing out how much they got from Neuromancer.

    Ghost-Pirate

    4 April 2006 at 4:38 am

  3. The influence I was referring to was in written SF, where cyberpunk was more or less killed off by Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In case you don’t recall, back in the late ’80s, every second or third SF book was cyberpunk. Now there are a few, but very few.

    And, sorry, but a television that is tuned is on, and a dead channel gives static, and I’ve been living in a city of 14 million for over two years now, and the sky ain’t never looked like static. Overcast with urban lights — not static-looking at all. The sky often resembles a TV which is off, when the overcast is thick and low. But not static.

    As to The Matrix, the debt it owes Neuromancer in particular is no larger than what it owes Vinge’s “True Names”, cyberpunk in general, Japanese anime, manga, and superficially understood freshman philosophy classes.

    Ian

    4 April 2006 at 5:30 am

  4. Sorry, Ian. I’m with your other two commenters. Crappy, overcast, smoggy and underlit by the city below was precisely the image that line put in my mind.

    And I rather enjoyed Neuromancer, and most everything else Gibson has written.

    Kevin Baker

    4 April 2006 at 6:48 am

  5. Guess I’ll just have to settle for “lone voice in the wilderness” on this one. πŸ™‚

    Gibson is, in fact, a good writer. His unproduced script for Alien 3 would, potentially, have been the best in the series (Hicks was the hero, Ripley was barely in it, and the escalation of the menace was fraggin’ brilliant). But I remain steadfast in my disdain for Neuromancer. And if I’m more or less alone in that, so be it.

    Ian

    4 April 2006 at 9:38 pm

  6. I know I’m sounding in late on this one — just spotted it. I’ve always found the opening sentence to fit with the “techno-style” metaphors Gibson used throughout the novel. I admit a “dead channel” shows static, although the color is dynamic — ever changing. But in the world of Neuromancer this seemed like a good way to something that is “nature,” and not technology. That is to say, the narrator sees the world through technology that controls culture and society in the novel.

    William Jones

    17 November 2006 at 5:42 am

  7. So be it. Lone Voice in the Wilderness it is. Call me Mr. Iconoclast. πŸ™‚

    Ian

    20 November 2006 at 2:12 pm

  8. Wow, that’s a beautiful opening line. I think that a author that comes off as silly, pretension, or nonsentical is better then one that is boring safe and cliche at least. He might have failed you as a reader, but at least he tried to give you an enjoyable experiance. Although I think if what you said was right: That he ment to say the color is the same as a TV turned off then he’s an idiot and dumber then a 3rd grader, because even a 3rd grader would know the difference and even if the author didn’t the editor WOULD know the difference and should have corrected it. Ha ha. That would be pretty funny. Two retarded people help publish a book. LOL

    Blue Screen of Death

    30 January 2007 at 7:54 pm

  9. BSoD, I’m afraid I can’t extract too much sense from what you wrote.

    You begin with a false choice. There are certainly more options than “silly, pretension, or nonsentical” and “boring safe and cliche”. I’ll take “none of the above”, myself.

    I doubt very much that William Gibson’s intent with Neuromancer was to give me an enjoyable “experiance”, because I know that he’s fully capable of doing it — his unused script for Alien 3 was almost unspeakably brilliant and fun.

    The rest of what you wrote is impenetrable, because your grasp of English grammar seems to be even looser than your grasp of correct spelling.

    Ian

    30 January 2007 at 9:11 pm

  10. You’ve missed the point of the openning line of Gibson’s book. The imagery is that of a sky polluted with “grey” industrial waste, the word “dead” implys that a station has gone off the air – something is wrong, technology is broken, and those running the station may be dead, or abandoned their post. The use of “television” immediately makes us begin with a concentration on technology. The sentence is meant to set the tone for the remainder of the book and does so brilliantly. A future of broken, bleak technology, and something is wrong…

    Joe

    13 August 2007 at 4:58 pm

  11. Joe: No, I didn’t miss the point, I got it. Problem was, the point was made with an inapt metaphor. A dead station that is off the air gives you static. Black and white flecks, not gray. A television that is off is gray. For a comparison to work as a metaphor, the thing being compared has to actually be what it is. Gibson fudged it to work the word “dead” in because it was less accurate but fitted his need better. But he still fudged it.

    Ian

    15 August 2007 at 7:52 pm

  12. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of books that were far more pretentious, obnoxious and senseless than Neuromancer – and the writers are held at much higher regard than William Gibson. I got a completely different opinion from yours from reading this book. I don’t believe there could have been a better line to paint the picture of the story that followed.

    Regardless of all this, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if they didn’t get it. I am sure you aren’t alone on this, just vastly outnumbered.

    Jason Smith

    18 September 2007 at 12:10 pm

  13. My take on this line is that so much lights from the neon jungle of Tokyo were bouncing back from the atmosphere causing the sky to look like a TV tuned to a dead channel (snow) and all the noise of the large city would create a sort of white noise heard and, if you use your imagination, felt around you.

    digitalmick

    2 July 2008 at 2:24 pm


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