In 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer became the defining novel of the emerging cyberpunk genre. It also gave the world one of science fiction’s most often quoted, referenced and spoofed opening sentences:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Set in a dystopian, technologically advanced, darkly urban future, Neuromancer was one of the earliest works of fiction to portray an edgy world of cyber criminals, virtual realities of globally networked data and neural computer implants. It introduced the term “cyberspace” into popular use.
Yet, like all futuristic science fiction, it was not really about the future but about its own time.
In the early 1980s, personal computers were beginning their ingress into regular people’s homes, running basic book-keeping programs and low-res games. Sharing information over a globally interconnected network of computers was still a decade away for the average user, though government and financial institutions have been sending data using packet switch networks since the 60’s.
Rapid technological change was happening just far enough on the margins of everyday lives to be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. To the techie types and to many readers of science fiction, the implications of this were mind-blowing and cool. Also cool was black leather and mirror shades.
And so the novel sets the scene for the technologically advanced seedy future underworld by comparing the sky above the Sprawl megapolis to the static noise of analogue television. The current generation of kids reading Neuromancer for the first time is most likely to interpret this to mean that the sky was a bright flat expanse of blue. The next generation may be confused by the “dead channel” reference: does that mean its content hasn’t been updated for a while? The evocative impact of “television” itself will lose all semblance to a pertinent metaphor for the latest technology invading our homes, and will instead become part of the lore of a quaint society that had no control over the timing, structure and content of its own entertainment.
It is unfairly limiting to talk about this novel (or any other novel) in terms of its opening sentence alone, though that sentence may highlight its groundbreaking prescience at the same time as rooting it in its own technological era. No matter. This mosaic is about that sentence.
It grew around the sky the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Around that sky, I wanted to give just a hint of the Sprawl – the urban metropolis stretching along most of the east coast of US from Boston to Atlanta.
I struggled with this mosaic and laid it aside for a long time after filling in the sky. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what the Sprawl should look like.
Now that I finally forced myself to finish it, I am much happier with the result than I ever thought possible. The Sprawl looks like an 80’s idea of a futuristic city. It looks like a low-res graphic on the coolest gaming console you wish you owned. As visions of the future interpreted in an archaic medium of mosaic go, it looks just right.