Revenge of the Eyeballs

"The Eyeballs in the Sky!" That catchphrase from the late great Maurice Dodd's Perishers cartoon makes regular appearances in my SF newsletter when I record the peculiar things that fictional eyes get up to. Such as: "Marley's great, popping black eyes bounced around the room ..." (James L. Swanson, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.) "It was as though his eyes were two planets that had suddenly broken free from gravity and got whirled off – victims of centrifugal force." (R.L. Fanthorpe, Out of the Darkness.) Or, more moistly intimate, "I saw a pair of beautiful blue eyes caressing my face." (Jocelynn Drake, Wait for Dusk.)

This year the eyeballs, as it were, bit back. There's a horrific moment in Brian Aldiss's story "The Moment of Eclipse" where our hero's eyesight is slowly eclipsed from within. The culprit turns out to be a parasitic worm in his eye, a memory I wished I didn't have crawling through my head when the shadow started to grow in my own field of vision. It was a good time to panic.

"His eyes ran, literally, across the whole of the upper portion of his face ...' (Richard Marsh, The Beetle.)

On Monday the dark patch in my right eye was merely worrying, on Tuesday the optician made soothing noises but sight seemed worse, on Wednesday the doctor was highly alarmed and referred me to our local hospital, and on Thursday the surgeon decided he'd better operate next day. By then the eclipse had expanded into central vision: I couldn't read with that eye any more. Grim thoughts followed, about Jorge Luis Borges, famous blind writer and librarian, and the characters based on him in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, book-lovers unable to see the page.... It was a long sleepless night before the operation.

"Everard finished a night's sleep and a breakfast which Deirdre's eyes had made miserable by standing on deck ...' (Poul Anderson, Guardians of Time.)

So what's retina surgery under local anaesthetic like for the person behind the eyeball? In SF terms it's reminiscent of having an eye wired open as in the film of A Clockwork Orange, and being forced to watch all the bits of the famous 2001 light-show that landed on the cutting-room floor because they weren't pretty or psychedelic enough. Readers: "Stop! Stop! Too much information already!" NHS nurses, bless them, know how to deal with post-op trauma. They give you tea and buttered toast.

"Slowly his right eye lidded itself and then rolled back on a moist optic." (Frank Belknap Long, "Willie".) "The porcine little eyes widened just a bit and then settled elastically back to half-mast." (Jeff Somers, The Electric Church.)

Successful operation, the surgeon said at once, but it took me a while to bounce elastically back. For cunning therapeutic reasons they put a big bubble of gas in your eye – sulphur hexafluoride, who'd have guessed? The resulting Bionic Langford couldn't actually see much until that slowly dissolving bubble had shrunk a lot.

"The woman took her eyes from him languorously and placed them, in a delicate fashion, on Mosely." (Jane Jensen, Sins of the Fathers.) "... abandoned buildings where the homeless hide and hungry eyes that will take your cigarettes and your wallet.' (Joseph S Pulver, "To Live and Die in Arkham".)

Maybe I should queasily stop collecting those eyeball quotes. Or maybe, now I'm almost back to normal, I won't.

David Langford is hugely grateful to the eye departments at the Royal Berks Hospital (Reading) and Edward VII Hospital (Windsor).