That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Vivid Hopelessness: William Gibson’s Neuromancer

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

When I first read that opening line in the late ‘80s, I was hooked. I immediately saw the static-laced silver sky illuminating the streets, flickering above Chiba, a city filled with technology, criminals, and the destitute. It was one of the most grabbing and distinctive things I had ever read. The story that unfolded followed up on the promise the first line made. I had found something that grabbed onto my gut and pulled me into a ride like I’d never had before. Neuromancer by William Gibson started my tour of the cyberpunk genre.

Gibson continues to use the sky over Chiba in various ways throughout the book. At one point he walks us through entering the matrix, beginning with “silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space” eventually merging into a spinning gray disk “the color of Chiba sky.”

A little less than halfway through the novel, when the protagonist, Case, makes his first contact with an artificial intelligence and flatlines, we are once again brought back to the start of the story, with a deliberation and force that shows Gibson as a true master. Using the same words, “the poisoned silver sky,” Gibson leads us into a flashback that could only take place in the hell-hole Case recently escaped from.

The next time Case falls into the grasp of an artificial intelligence, the scene is completely different, a beach with sand the color of tarnished silver, and again, the sky silver, like a Chiba sky.

Neuromancer was the beginning of a genre that depicted a future of vivid hopelessness, advanced computers, and criminal organizations, where anyone skilled enough had a chance, however remote, to actually make it. The cure for a drug addiction could be bought, removing everything but the mental need for another hit. The addiction could just as easily be returned.

Gibson created a world like none I had ever seen, suturing together disparate pieces of a world we all knew, and returning to us a wholly believable entity.

I recently had the opportunity to re-read Neuromancer, and was struck by the different image the same text gave me today. Gone was the black and white flickering, the television sky, and the poisoned silver view. The first image that came to me this time was of a vibrant blue, the sky of a cloudless summer day, stifled by the heat of a brilliant sun just before it set. I read an opening line that no longer fit the story.

In Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake, book one in his WWW trilogy, he effectively uses the difference time can make with the following line:

The sky above the island was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel—which is to say it was a bright cheery blue.

Despite the incongruous image, Neuromancer stands as work that led a genre in a spectacular fashion.

Gerald Brandt’s short story “Storm” appeared in the 2013 Prix Aurora Award-winning anthology Blood & Water. By day, he’s an IT professional and coding guru. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife and two sons. His book The Courier is out March 1st from DAW.


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