Metaphors the Colour of Television

Discussing what makes William Gibson’s opening line of “Neuromancer” a great quote.

Stormy skies

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

Another opening line of a novel, this time from Neuromancerby William Gibson. The Quote sets the mood and era of the book accurately. Mood: gloomy. Era: television. Try writing a metaphor about a dead television channel for generations born in the complement of the twentieth century and you’re in trouble. (Year of publication: 1984.)

Incidentally, Neuromancer got the Cyberpunk literary genre going; William Gibson was the first to use the word cyberspace in a 1982 short story, and in Neuromancer he actually gives the definition: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators … ”

What makes the Quote quiver?

Mood and setting.

The astrologer of the nineteenth century, Raphael, pseud., 1795-1832 Anglicus, Merlinus, junior, Gent
Astrologer, not Neuromancer …

If you know what television is, the description of the sky comes riding not only with visual vividness but with all the gloom and doom and disappointment associated with a dead channel. Nobody wants to watch it, nobody needs it, but it being plastered across the sky, means everybody is stuck with it.

What is at the core of the Quote?

A lot of little things: synecdoche, metaphor, perhaps a soupçon of transferred epithet.

Synecdoche uses a part to stand in for a whole, or a whole to stand in for a part. Like saying boots on the ground to mean army, or America to mean The United States of America. In this case, television stands for television screen. Gibson could have said was the colour of a television screen, but that adds words and doesn’t add content.

Metaphors. Prickly beasts to define — who are they and how to subdivide them sensibly? — especially since they blend sideways with all sorts of other figures: idioms, personification, smilies, synaesthesias. It’s all subtlety and academic crime, if you ask me. For now, think of metaphors applying a description not literally, but by analogy. Once upon a time someone called a channel dead, and it stuck. (You might also classify this type of metaphor as personification.)

A transferred epithet is often an adjective you’d normally apply to a human using an object, but instead the adjective is stuck in front of the object. Instead of a happy child playing with a ball, you could have a child playing with a happy ball. In the speed of reading you may only notice the transposition on a subtle, subconscious level. In our case, even though the sky of the port and dead are separated via colour, television, and tuned, the ominousness of death reaches out from the channel and imbues the sky, and therefore the reader’s mind as well. It’s a stretch.

You may be amused that the Google’s second link upon searching for dead channel (even without quotes!), revealed a YouTube clip called “television, tuned to a dead channel”, which displays for 32 seconds the pixellated blizzard of a dead channel accompanied by appropriate static noise. Below it is the Quote from William Gibson. The clip was uploaded in 2012 and has had more than three thousand views, so far. Make of that what you will.

Death and the jester

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

2 thoughts on “Metaphors the Colour of Television”

  1. I always thought this was a very vivid quote – to someone of my generation (chronologically advantaged) it’s an immediate description of what’s going on. But that’s not what dead television channels look like anymore – you don’t get that sort of noise on digital channels. (And perhaps that’s why it’s on YouTube, to remind people.) I loved the fact that Neil Gaiman is able to pay homage to William Gibson in writing ‘Neverwhere’ (only twelve years later!) when he says “The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel.” I wonder what metaphor a future author will be able to get from a dead channel (“There was a momentary flicker, like that on a television screen tuned to a dead channel before new content rushes in to takes it place…”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard of the Neil Gaiman quote before, nor — must I admit this publicly? — had I understood the metaphor about the untroubled blue without researching it. (I went straight from blizzards on a dead channel to “new content rushing to take its place”.) Thank you for pointing that out!

      Yes, I wonder what comes next. I’m sure someone has already crafted new, more ‘modern’ dead channel metaphors (if not, it’s way overdue). I like your suggested line about rushing content; perhaps there should be a contest to see who comes up with the best one … 🙂


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