There are three apartment buildings side-by-side, tall-squat-tall, the short one dwarfed by windowless brick facades on either side. The back of the middle building opens out onto nothingness with not even a parapet blocking a potential fall; a marble set down at the front of the roof would slowly start rolling, picking up speed as it bounced and flew, until it plummeted the four stories to the ground before shattering on the superintendent's unkempt patio.

Sprouting from the tar, painted silver to reflect sunlight in a time before the building lived in the perpetual shadow of its neighbors, is a forest of television antennas, one twisted and crooked tower per apartment. Most of them were relics of a time when broadcast had a literal meaning, when every home in New York City was connected to the Empire State Building by invisible filaments of entertainment.

The hatch to the roof is propped open with a brick. The sun is up but just barely, and the aluminum forest is glowing and looks warm to the touch. They dissect the sky into discrete geometries that render it almost close enough to touch.

She is standing on the roof with an old and dirty bath towel over her shoulder, orienting herself. Some of the aerials, she knew, were still in use, but it always took her a minute to figure out which. Picking one she thought she recognized by the almost jaunty angle it was resting at, she held out her hand, running it up and down its length and out to the ends of its branches, not touching it, trying to sense a low-level electric hum gathering around it and feeding the television below like an IV drip. Not finding what she was looking for she tries another, and another, winding her way lazily around the roof like a window-shopper.

She finds one, small and off to the side, surrounded by what feels like strands of cotton candy spun from sugar and electrons and ozone an inch under her palms. Sitting cross-legged at its base on her towel she lifts her shirt over her head, leaning back just enough so that her spine runs the length of the bare metal. She can feel, somewhere on the periphery of the energy field that her brain is mistakenly telling her is coming from her fingertips, the background radiation of the creation of the universe. She concentrates, mentally adjusts the reception to surround the static, isolates it at a distance, and slowly tunes it out.

She smiles, carefully cracks open a beer, closes her eyes. The Mets are winning.

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

The opening line of William Gibson's Neuromancer. In keeping with the book's groundbreaking style, the imagery is so tightly packed that the actual colour is not specified. Gibson presumably meant the grey of static interference, as a few pages later he refers to "the poisoned silver sky". But with the transition from analogue to digital signals and from CRTs to flat panels, this analogy may paint a very different scene for the modern reader:

"The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel."

-Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Charles Stross also couldn't resist a modernisation, although this time in the original spirit:

"The sky was the color of a dead laptop display, silver-gray and full of rain."

-The Family Trade1

Neuromancer was released shortly after I was born, so by the time I got around to reading it many of the 'futuristic' technical details seemed anachronistic: that three megabytes of RAM could be valuable; or that programs came on ROM cartridges. Still, cyberpunk was more about the social impact than the tech itself, so I find it interesting that unforseen technological change could lead us to a society where the text itself takes on unintended meaning, right from the first line.




1 Thanks to NanceMuse for reminding me which Stross book I'd seen this in.

BQ10

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