TV Skies and Mushroom Clouds

William Gibson’s Neuromancer deals with some common science fiction themes such as the blurring line between nature and technology. I enjoyed discovering how seemingly casual descriptions and metaphors served to highlight this theme. Take the opening line of the book for example: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (p. 3). It’s a brilliant line which I think could be read one of many ways. When I first saw it, it just struck me as a really clever description that effectively conveyed both an image and a mood. I immediately pictured the flecks of black and grey buzzing with static on an old cathode ray tube TV and the somber calm it projects. I thought, what an ingenious way to describe an overcast sky.

However, when I came back to the line again after reading the other chapters, it took on another meaning. From prosthetics to cyberspace, Neuromancer is full of examples of technology melding with nature. With this in mind, I looked at the line from a different perspective. I think Gibson deliberately aligns the sky (nature) with something man-made to emphasize the theme of bio-mechanical convergence. He does this again on page 5, where he describes the job of cyber hacking as “opening windows into rich fields of data,” this time describing the digital with something we normally associate with the natural (rich fields).

"Get just wasted enough...and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data" (p. 17)

Also, it occurred to me this time around that the condition of the “television sky” was something of a permanent state. Throughout the first few chapters, I got some obvious (and not so obvious) hints that something cataclysmic had happened.  The first clue (which I missed at first) should have been the “unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores” (emphasis mine, p. 3). It’s such an easy adjective to skim over but I think it speaks volumes. To me it suggests either (a) working girls don’t get much sun because they work at night or (b) nobody gets much sun because it’s always blocked out. The latter option seems more likely after knowing what I know now. Chiba and the Sprawl are covered by massive arcologies and  Tokyo Bay is a “black expanse” (p. 7)  blighted with “drifting shoals of waste” (p. 39). The narrator adds that Ninsei sits “under the poisoned silver sky” (p. 7).

All of these seem to indicate that catastrophic environmental (esp. atmospheric) degradation has taken place on a global scale. I can only guess what happened. Perhaps Gibson’s taken our current rate of ecocide to its natural conclusion. But, if the arcade game Linda Lee was playing is any indication, the “poisoned” sky might very well be referring to nuclear winter. Maybe the “ten-megaton hit on Tank War Europa” (p. 17) was a case of game imitating life.

Gibson manages to fill in the details without any crude exposition, leaving instead small hints in unexpected places. Everytime I read it, I find another piece of the puzzle. So far, the picture is neon, bleak, and foreboding.