The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
That’s one of the greatest opening lines in literary history, for my money. It has stuck with me for nearly thirty years. In fact, I just quoted it by heart (double-checking only to make sure I got the comma right: I did). As everybody else who has encountered it also doubtless remembers, William Gibson’s brilliant novel NEUROMANCER begins with this sentence. I haven’t read the book since it was first published in 1984, but I still remember this line perfectly, because it smacked me like an open hand.
We know instinctively that a musical melody can get under our skins. Even a tune we had had quite enough of remains inside us, in some primal part of our brains that can whisk us back to the moment when it was contemporary and conjure long-forgotten emotions, both fond and regretful, whether we like it or not. Those of you who are old enough: start thinking of the melody of Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song” – you know the one, “Even though we ain’t got money / I’m so in love with you honey…” Got it? Okay, now try to STOP thinking of it. Both my mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease late in their lives, and even at the point where they could only speak in gibberish syllables (except very rarely, when a perfectly formed sentence would come out, chilling me to the bone and forcing me to wonder if they’d been making sense to themselves all along. Alzheimer’s is one king-hell bitch, friends), they could still remember musical notes and put them together into a recognizable melody. This strongly suggests that we experience and file musical tones in some other sector from wherever we store and retrieve language. I would guess visual cues are handled differently as well. I don’t have the medical background to be sure, but that’s what I’ve observed, and it makes common sense to me.
But what is it about a string of letters that creates a profundity or emotional tug? I can only explain my own reactions, and I’m not suggesting that I have the last word as an academician might. In the case of NEUROMANCER, part of the key is that date: 1984. It was the beginning of the personal computer revolution, still largely confined to hobbyists. The Apple Macintosh, which billed itself as “the computer for the rest of us,” had only just appeared. But with that bold sentence, Bill Gibson announced that he was speaking to a new generation of science fiction readers – heck, a new generation of readers, period. The original thundercrack of 20th century science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and colleagues – had given way to a more socially conscious, taboo-smashing New Wave – Spinrad, Ellison, Disch, LeGuin, and so on – who were audacious enough to question the very existence of this or that genre. But that had happened twenty or so years before. Unlike the slow but miraculous race to the moon, when science-based writers could still kind of keep up, the pace of technological and societal change was increasing. It became folly to predict the future, because the future now arrived before your ink was even dry.
Bill Gibson was 35 when he wrote NEUROMANCER; he was born in the same year George Orwell published NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. He was on the leading edge of the first generation that grew up with television as a casual aspect of daily life. So when he described a sickly gray color that resembled a ”dead channel,” everybody his age and younger understood instantly, and they knew they were being addressed by a peer. These people had never gathered around a radio drama when they were kids, like elder writers had. They couldn’t really remember pulp magazines or movie serials, at least not in their heydays. But they were old enough to recall what it was like before tv channels blared around the clock, the days when your local station actually signed off the air at midnight or so…and became a dead channel until the following morning. In this instant, Gibson had announced the arrival of an emerging digital point of view. This attitude, combined with often breathless views of an over-teched future dystopia, came to be called “cyberpunk,” and lots of people, including me, got their very first taste in NEUROMANCER. Simply rotate the “C” ninety degrees to form a “U,” and you’ve changed everything. Maybe creativity is that simple. (Spoiler Alert: it is, but only for those who can manage to make that unnatural turn, which eliminates nearly all the rest of us.) One caveat: Bill himself may well have been inspired by the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You,” which contains the line “gazing on the city under television skies,” but I always felt Jim Morrison was just casting out images. That one, from both Bill and Jim, is a dandy.
I wasn’t alone in my adoration. NEUROMANCER won every award the field was able to bestow, and William Gibson became something grander than a science fiction writer, the same thing that had happened to Kurt Vonnegut a generation earlier. Anybody who really likes spaceships and lasers can remember the frisson produced by the first shot of STAR WARS, the 1977 original, as the massive Imperial ship chases the smaller one, death-rays blazing. You thought, oh, wow, I think I’m gonna enjoy this. Well, that’s also what I thought upon reading that now-famous sentence – and in both cases, the creators delivered on the promise of their superlative curtain-raisers.
Call me Ishmael.
This opening sentence resonates because of the tremendous sense of foreshadowed drama it portends. Perhaps the NEUROMANCER opening will do the same, once we give it the requisite, say, fifty more years, as the world it describes falls inexorably into ancient history.
Every snot-nosed kid who dutifully tried Herman Melville’s titanic work MOBY-DICK back in grade school discovered that to get this far, you first have to wade through an abysmal, seemingly unending section of definition, etymology, etc. We get it, sir: whales are badasses. But, as with the satirical Onion item about the Titanic being struck by the world’s largest metaphor, so we understand from the first words that this is more than a story about a fishing expedition.
In the John Huston film, written by Ray Bradbury – who definitely loved him some metaphor – the Richard Basehart voiceover includes a pregnant pause. The actor says, “Call me…Ishmael,” as if he were trying to come up with some pseudonym on the spot. That pause isn’t written in Melville, but this subtext definitely is: call me whatever you want. I don’t care. I’m going to tell you something that’s almost beyond belief, but it happened, pal, I saw it with my own eyes, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. That last bit is from the book of Job – which Melville’s readership had studied much closer in 1851 than we do today – so, to coin a phrase, we know dude be serious. Biblical scholars tell us the name “Ishmael” connotes an outcast, a wanderer. As we say in the enlightened new millennium, whatev.
By the way, kids, don’t give up on this great tale just because of all the lousy pre-show variety acts. Skip the front parts and go directly to “Chapter 1: LOOMINGS.” Trust me. Don’t wait for your teacher to “interpret”: this looming business is spelled out for you on page one, but I am not responsible for any blowback if you happen to point this out in class. (Yes, that is indeed experience speaking.)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Did you recognize that sentence? Bet you did. It opens George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. It’s so sly that it ruins our internal balance without even seeming to. After all, the military, and any European transportation hub, operate on a 24-hour clock, for understandable precision: “The cap’n said drop the nuke at 12: did he mean noon or midnight?” There does actually exist a concept known as thirteen o’clock. No, wait: the military and Eurail know 1:00 pm as “1300 hours.” So why are the clocks striking thirteen? Is it because we’re under martial law? (Spoiler Alert: in a way, yes.) Is it because all civilians have been forced to observe these same rules of precision for the good of the body politic? (You‘re getting warmer, unlike the bright April day – it really should be warm by now!)
Fourteen words, a comma and a period. That’s all it took to thrust us into a disturbing new paradigm, to shift reality. Orwell’s immortal story works not only because of its invention or prescience, but also because he was able to knock us off kilter within seconds. Now consider a longer lead-in.
It was a perfect 72 degrees the December morning the Marshalls’ home computer arrived, and the sky was set to a soaring azure, but it was flickering, which was the whole problem.
Recognize that? No? I’m not surprised. It’s the opening sentence – and paragraph – from the 2006 short story “Installation Day.” It appeared in an anthology called GOLDEN AGE SF, for which contemporary authors were invited to pretend they were working in science fiction’s “Golden Age” – that is, the 30s through the 50s – with no knowledge of what actually came later. Sort of retro-futurism. I’ve postponed it for a couple minutes, but I guess the time has come to reveal that the author is none other than me. (Judging only from this opening sentence, sharp eyes might suss that I’d long since consumed the Gibson and the Orwell.)
I did hobble myself by setting this sentence against three of the greatest openings ever, but I do have a kind of explanation. Still, you can see what happens when a child attempts to do a grown person’s job. (Not just me, either: most writers would probably try to get the setting out of the way: “At 1 pm on April 4th…”) My opening is by far the longest, clunkiest, most info-packed but nevertheless least interesting of the four you see. How one could/would “set” the sky and why it was “flickering” get explained in the story, as you assume they will, and a 72-degree December morning isn’t uncommon to those who live in the Sunbelt. But look at all I failed to do in twice, thrice, the words, compared to the greatest. In fairness, I must add that I deliberately wrote this story to read like an old pulp magazine piece, and bombastic opening sentences like mine were almost obligatory. I’m not beating myself up for your amusement; I’m actually quite pleased with how the story turned out anent the commission. (I think I might also be speaking for my editor, Eric T. Reynolds, who first improved my story and then bought it, as do many editors of short fiction, in that order.)
But these magical moments don’t happen by accident. Or maybe they do. The sliver of our minds that great literature manages to touch can fire in a split-second. But as William Gibson showed me, that blinding spark can last a lifetime.