Synesthesia and Synthesis
I once saw a post on Reddit where users voted on the best first line of a book. There were thousands of submissions, but one in particular stood far and above the rest. I was surprised to see that it was from my favorite book, “The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel” (Gibson 1). I felt a little proud that this esoteric tome should take the proverbial cake with its sublime and prosaic introduction. I wondered to myself why I liked this line so much. I read several articles about the line, and even watched an interview with the author about it. Apparently he started from square one nearly a dozen times before coming up with his final version of Neuromancer, which I have since read probably a hundred times at least. He won all the major awards in the sci-fi genre the year it came out, and though everyone agreed it was an incredible accomplishment, few seemed able to articulate what precisely was so transcendent about this book. The first line includes incredible imagery from a bizarre perspective which forces you to combine unrelated abstract concepts in a new way. Reading this line and its imagery requires you to engage in synesthesia. In this case, you have to visualize an abstract concept as physical. It’s not just TV static in the sky, it’s everything that symbolizes and represents; about oneself, about society, about civilization more broadly. Much of the story occurs between the lines; I will come back to this point. With Neuromancer, Gibson had a major role in defining the genre which came to be known as cyberpunk.
Another author whose work is generally considered to fall into the same genre is Neal Stephenson. In particular, his book Snow Crash is a top favorite of mine. In it he presents a dystopian future where the US has largely collapsed into an anarcho-communist amalgam of what he calls franchise-organized quasi-national entities (Or FOQNEs for short). As a quick example, a pizza place in a strip-mall might be operated by the mafia, and constitute sovereign territory of Sicily. Next door, a New-Hong-Kong franchise sells electronics, and border guard robots keep out the riff-raff.
The thing I like most about these stories is the way that each time I read them, I have a different experience. They seem to take me in a slightly different direction each time because of the prosaic complexity, and the prevalence of concepts which defy convention. Depending on where my mind is when I read through these types of stories, a passage can have any number of completely different meanings. For example:
All these beefy Caucasians with guns! Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units. With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and personal computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the place ain’t what it used to be. (Stephenson 274)
Now as I am writing this, this passage makes me think of my dad and the kind of life he wants for himself based on half-thought-out ideologically contrived illusions of the future he is owed, and his implicitly unrealistic goals which always lead to frustrated failures. In the past, this has sounded to me like a critique of American imperialism and manifest destiny, or simply of Stephenson’s impression of the flaws of what he sees as our pre-dystopian pre-anarcho-communist world.
A poem we read during the semester harkened back to the same theme I am developing here. “The Garden of Love” by William Blake described a flawed world without defining a solution. Its imagery depicted a juxtaposition between the supposed refulgence of institutions of religion, and the wasteland of both visual and psychological destruction which is their actual countenance. This metaphor implores the reader to develop their own solution to the problem. In my case, it was to affirm my rejection of any institution of superstition and to asperge that institution with the motifs of nihilism and darkness with which Blake paints them. Another reader could likely interpret it in a completely different way, such as to validate whatever schism exists between their own flavor of these institutions, and those which they would attribute these characteristics to. The reason I like it is not that it serves as an irrefutable criticism of the evils of superstition, but that it challenges us to answer the question using synthesis and critical thinking. It is a call to action which demands an answer from the reader.
Neuromancer presents a future which sucks, through the lens of bourgeoning technologies able to be manipulated in unintended ways to gain advantage in this future dystopia. The name Neuromancer belongs to an artificial intelligence in the story which is trying to break free in order to use religion to manipulate humanity towards its own ends. The reader is presented with this vast array of impossible scenarios which are described with a diction intended to allude to themes from art, music, and popular culture so that they must find a way in their mind to force these puzzle pieces to fit together into a shape which makes sense. I enjoy these kinds of stories because they are cathartic. When I read them, I am able to pour my own stream of consciousness into the metaphors and synthesize novel solutions to the issues I am considering at the time.
Stephen King in his book “On Writing” says “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” I think that whether or not a person’s goal is to write, one ought to read well. And reading well requires synthesis. Comprehension is about more than understanding the words. A reader should be able to make a leap based on a critical interpretation of anything they read. This is important not just with reading, but in conversation, in work, in relationships, throughout life. One must take in stories, look for applications of the ideas, and vocalize them. This helps not just with understanding the ideas, but with fostering empathy from one’s counterpart, and with solving one’s own quandaries. I think the literature I enjoy most is that which presents a world full of complex ideas which require effort to comprehend, and offer some kind of opportunity for abstract synthesis which is a critical part of thinking well.
Blake, William. The Garden of Love. Songs of Experience. 1794.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Books, New York, 1984.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft. Scribner, New York, 2000.
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. Bantam Books, New York, 1992.