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Neuromancer, published in '84, famously opens with the line

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

I've always interpreted this to mean "gray", if not literally "TV static snow", because it was what TV sets displayed back then, and also because it fits the mood of the novel. I'm well aware TV sets have changed multiple times the way they display a "dead channel": bright blue (Neil Gaiman jokes about this in Neverwhere, paraphrasing Neuromancer), black with a "no signal" message, going full circle to today's simulated "TV snow".

My question is, what did Gibson actually intend us to see? Like I said, I though it was a gray sky, but a friend told me Gibson was thinking of even older TV sets, from before the first "gray static" era, which displayed... what? Dark blue? Black? Plain gray, without snow? Unfortunately I cannot find any references for my friend's claim.

Note this isn't a question about tech (so answers focusing on the TV tech of the 80s or 60s probably won't answer the question), but about the imagery Gibson was actually trying to evoke. Is there any reference, like an interview, answering this?

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    I had remembered it being displayed as gray in the Interplay video game (which is not canonical but begins with the same line). However, looking at images from the game, it seems that the sky was never actually shown, although there was a lot of gray in the various Chiba City backgrounds. I imagine that not showing the sky was a deliberate stylistic choice in this case. (No pun intended.)
    – Buzz
    Jul 8, 2017 at 15:30
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    He's in good company; the Greek classics The Iliad and The Odyssey never manage to call the sky blue.
    – thrig
    Jul 8, 2017 at 22:41
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    This is a great literary interpretation question that goes to the heart of why stories need to be understood from the context (in this case, technological milieu) in which they were written! I don't think my niece has ever seen "real" NTSC TV snow. She's more at the "See Spot run" level now, but it will be good to help her understand this once she reaches the right level. Jan 12, 2019 at 11:34

3 Answers 3

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According to this reddit transcript of the new audiobook edition, Gibson intended for it to indicate black and white static.

"I actually composed that first image with black and white video static of my childhood in mind, sodium silvery and almost painful, a whopping anachronism right at the very start of my career,in the imaginary future, but an invisible one, interestingly. One that revels a particular grace shared by all imaginary futures as they make their way up the timeline and into the real future where we all must go. The reader never stopped to think that I must have been thinking, however unconsciously, of the texture and color of a signal free channel on a wooden cabinet motorola with fabric covered speakers. Readers compensated for me shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden and imagined whatever they assumed was the color of static to take on a melancholy of the phrase dead channel."

In Gibson's childhood, a static channel would have looked like this;

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    Awesome! I'll accept this as the answer, since it's the Word of God. Note however that in that reddit thread they mention Gibson has contradicted himself about this in the past, which is likely the source of my friend's claim. However, if Gibson is now claiming it's B&W static, I'll accept it!
    – Andres F.
    Jul 8, 2017 at 17:45
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    @AndresF. - I've been trying to track down the source of that quote about a Mangavox TV. That thread is the only place it seems to be referenced which makes it deeply suspicious in my opinion.
    – Valorum
    Jul 8, 2017 at 17:46
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    The 'no signal on this channel' channel (as opposed to 'zero signal on this channel' channel) from the movie "Poltergeist" (1982) shows what it looked like well enough when Neuromancer got written (1984) though the whole room wouldn't flicker as if there was a strobelight of course. The opening of "Serial Experiments Lain" (1998) works, too. Aug 25, 2018 at 12:36
  • Note: chickenhead's answer also corroborates that the sky above the port was indeed the color of gray static. It also led me to an article which quotes several additional sentences all comparing the sky with some sort of grey.
    – Andres F.
    Sep 18, 2018 at 15:49
17

Case references the sky again a few pages on, remembering his attempts to cure the mycotoxin damage (emphasis mine).

By day, the bars down Ninsei were shuttered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting, under the poisoned silver sky.

Neuromancer, Part One, "Chiba City Blues"

I don't think you need to worry about variant dead channel themes. Just a poisoned silver sky.

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    +1 Wow, that's great! If the other answer didn't directly quote Gibson, I'd accept this one. I googled your quote and found an entire article devoted to this matter, with additional quotes that prove the sky was indeed grey/static/silver and not blue or black or anything else.
    – Andres F.
    Sep 18, 2018 at 15:44
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William Gibson recently quote-retweeted a photo from Monica Lewinsky (yes, that one) which he captions with

Now there’s your color of television, very much as I had it in mind.

Here is the image:

screen-grab of twitter, showing a photo that includes a pale-great sky

Not 'static snow'. Grey.

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  • Cool. Thanks for posting this answer, +1
    – Andres F.
    Jan 7 at 16:31
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    Gibson has contradicted himself on this so often that I don't really think he remembers what he's said before and probably doesn't remember what he had in mind in the first place when he wrote it.
    – Valorum
    Jan 7 at 17:05
  • @Valorum agreed, and it's actually understandable. All of us old people ( :P ) change our minds/forget things as we age. This is why I upvoted this answer but didn't change the accepted answer: I trust younger Gibson's answers more than older Gibson's. Still, this is a valuable answer!
    – Andres F.
    Jan 10 at 15:14
  • @Valorum (in an ironic twist, I see my comment in the accepted answer used the exact opposite reasoning I'm using here; showing even I am not consistent with my answers. I'd say I pulled "a Gibson" here)
    – Andres F.
    Jan 10 at 15:16

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