A man who cares about mullions


Oh hey, Internet!

This is the fourth part of my email mini-series about William Gibson’s AGENCY where I’m trying to put pins on a real world map for as many of the places and things mentioned in this extraordinarily interesting and timely sci-fi novel.

Have you bought yourself a copy yet? I know Tom did, good job Tom. If not, buy a signed copy from this great independent book store in Austin.

Previous posts are available here … if you haven’t succumbed to the allure of your own personal Dyneema tote yet.

As is the case in my “real” life, a major hub of activity in Verity’s life is her neighborhood coffee shop:

There was Wolven + Loaves, a few doors up the street, but it was usually busy, the acoustics harsh even when it wasn’t. Then she remembered 3.7-sigma, Joe-Eddy’s semi-ironic caffeination-point of choice, a few blocks away, on the opposite side of Valencia.

Based on my triangulation of the real Wolven + Loaves — discussed here in part 1 — there are two obvious candidates for the real 3.7-sigma. They are Ritual Coffee Roasters and Four Barrel Coffee, both a few blocks away, and both roughly matching the description given in the book of a shop filled with tech-bro hipsters and condescending baristas serving $6 cups of too-hot black coffee.

As a tech-bro hipster who drinks $6 coffees, I love them both.

There are a few clues here, the most obvious being “on the opposite side of Valencia,” which… Four Barrel is, and Ritual isn’t. One point for Four Barrel. But what kind of email newsletter would this be if I just left it there?

On page 131 of my beautiful signed hardcover edition of Agency, there is another brief description of 3.7-sigma from the outside — and here I am being careful to clip just these words to avoid any sort of possible spoiler from the surrounding context — Verity relates that “…Eunice having just remarked on the color of paint on the wood-mullioned door…”, and that the color of the paint was specifically “‘96 TARDIS blue.”

Thank you, Mr. Gibson, for this wonderful, wonderful description.

Let’s start with what the hell is a wood-mullioned door. When I originally read this description, I had to stop and put down the book to go look up the word “mullioned.” This is a word I swear I have not heard or read in my entire 42 years walking this planet.

Turns out, mullions are the vertical pieces of wood or other material that provide support for a window or door, sometimes splitting it into sections. So, you’ve got a big piece of glass and you want to stick it in a hole in your wall, you build a frame made out of wood and put some other pieces of wood right down the middle to support that big heavy glass, those are mullions.

“Hogwash,” you might say. “You are referring to a transom!”

“Ah,” I would say back to you. “A transom lies horizontal, while a mullion is vertical. It says so very clearly on Wikipedia pages for both, as if people frequently confuse one for the other.”

After learning about mullions, transoms and the difference betwixt the two on Wikipedia, I returned to the book. However, just a few pages later, I read something that jerked me violently away from the action of the book: ANOTHER USE OF THE TERM MULLIONED, this time, “beyond the foyer’s steel-mullioned door.”

I was shocked. Shocked! It seemed to me like a terrible oversight, like accidentally allowing the same awkward word to be awkwardly used three times in an awkward sentence. Like using a word in its own definition. A sentence fragment.

Have I been living in a cave my whole life, somehow ignorant of the existence of the word “mullion?” A word so common it would be used 2 times in the span of 50 pages by one of my favorite authors? Did I take 7 semesters of college classes in English literature and creative writing and just by some ill twist of bad luck happen to never encounter this word that everyone else is saying all the fucking time? Am I actually one of the stupid people?

“Actually, mullions are my favorite architectural element,” you might be saying. Just shut it.

It turns out that there are 11,500,000 results on Google for the word “transom,” while there are only 526,000 results for “mullion.” This is not a commonly used word. It isn’t just me incorrectly calling all structural elements of a window transoms.

So… is William Gibson somehow mullion-obsessed?

YES, reader. HE IS. I used Google Books to grep through the text of every book Gibson has published. The results are below.

He used “mullion” in Mona Lisa Overdrive, his third novel - tracing his use of the word as far back as 1988.

He used it three times in The Difference Engine, his fourth. Three! (Bruce Sterling may share partial responsibility for these.)

It appears twice in All Tomorrow’s Parties, his seventh novel. Twice again in Spook Country, his ninth. And then twice again in this, his latest.

That is 10 total uses of the word mullion across 12 books. By contrast, how many times do you think did he use the word transom — a word so frequently confused for the word mullion that this confusion is called out on both wikipedia pages? A word that is literally 22 times more popular on Google?

ZERO. Not once did he ever mention a transom, either wood or metal.

William Gibson is a man who cares about mullions.

Below, find an image of Ritual Roasters, grabbed from Google Maps Street View.

In this photo, you can clearly see that Ritual has a door made of glass and metal… err, a metal-mullioned door.

Next, you’ll see a Street View shot of Four Barrel:

A wood-mullioned door! Two points for Four Barrel.

The last clue to consider is the color: ‘96 TARDIS blue. This is another one of those details that, in just three words, unfurls an entire word of information before you in the same way Gibson used to describe cyberspace as a sprawling neon grid of info-nodes and quivering black walled ice.

This is, of course, a reference to Doctor Who’s time traveling space ship, the TARDIS, that is shaped like a wood-mullioned police box. More specifically, it a reference to the TARDIS that appeared in a movie that was released in 1996 - mid-way between the original series ending in 1989 and the new series beginning in 2005. I never saw this movie, so I can’t say much about it except to say that, based on this very handy Doctor Who trivia site, the TARDIS looked like… pretty much every other TARDIS.

(Thank you, The Doctor Who Site for your annotated timeline of all the different TARDIS designs. You can scroll back and forth through history and see how minute details of the design have changed throughout the show’s 57 year history.)

While both Ritual and Four Barrel are blue, I think it is clear to most people who have the ability to see the color blue that Four Barrel blue more closely resembles the ‘96 TARDIS blue. That’s four blues in one sentence, who edits this thing?

Three points for Four Barrel.

It was always going to be Four Barrel Coffee, and I guess I didn’t have to learn about mullions to prove that, but I did and now so have you. I’m glad, since it is actually my preferred coffee shop when in San Francisco even though the lines are sometimes too long and the seating options are not very good. I can’t fucking wait to get back there now, though, to look for Grim Tim.

As an final note, I will point to this clever poster on Reddit who pointed out that perhaps 3.7-sigma got its name from something as simple as Four Barrel’s address - it is located at 375 Valencia Street. Or perhaps not — 3.7 happens to also be the amount in ounces that a Nespresso coffee pod produces when brewed.

Thank you so much for reading. More soon!

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