Don't Look Now

After the London Worldcon I heard from a nice lady I'd met there, now reading Charles Stross's Accelerando (in an ice cream shop, where else?). She wanted to know whether I had anything to do with the book's "neural wetware-crashing Langford fractals". Er, yes, that would be me....

Longer ago than I like to think, Interzone published a Langford story called "Blit" that tried to put a new spin on the SF gimmick of information so indigestible that it literally kills you. Way back in Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud, for example, the vast alien intelligence of the title generously makes its wisdom available to puny Earthling scientists – whose brains blow out from data overload.

My take on this, partly inspired by Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, was a "basilisk" image that leaps along the optic nerve to confront your brain with a program it can't run. Fatal fractals – there are bits of the Mandelbrot set you really don't want to see at high magnification – or Bridget Riley op-art with the dazzle turned up to eleven. In "Blit", terrorists with stencils spray-paint urban walls with a lethal graphic mysteriously called the Parrot.

Years later (see SFX #10) I read Greg Egan's nifty Permutation City and found one character putting the frighteners on internet spies by typing: "Whoever you are, be warned: I'm about to display the Langford Mind-Erasing Fractal Basilisk, so ..." Immortality was mine!

Ken MacLeod gave me another namecheck in The Cassini Division, where he called those brain-crashing images "the Langford visual hack". In Ken's book it's more an urban myth than actual fact, and his heroine flatteringly wonders: "What kind of twisted mind starts these things?" I couldn't possibly comment.

Good old Charlie Stross namechecked me in Accelerando and went on to make my nasties a regular feature of electromagical defences in his Laundry series, with the Langford Death Parrot referenced in The Fuller Memorandum and a mention of Cambridge IV (the doomed research facility that developed my Parrot fractal) in The Atrocity Archives. Someone out there on the net stole a sinister-looking, vaguely bird-shaped computer graphic and posted it with a caption that led to this reassuring Yahoo! Answers exchange:

Q. Is the Basilisk photo of the Death Parrot, by Langford real? ... Someone go look at it and tell me if you die or not.

A. Yep. it works.

After writing four stories about those killer images and winning a Hugo with the last ("Different Kinds of Darkness"), it seemed wise to stop before the sequence turned into the Fractal Wheel of Time. But owing to unbelievable modesty I have to keep explaining that, apart from the fractals, it's not a new idea. William Gibson's Neuromancer has "black ice" cyberspace defences intended to fry hackers' brains. Two earlier examples both coincidentally come from October 1969: Piers Anthony's Macroscope – featuring mind-killing "Destroyer" broadcasts from deep space – and the World's Funniest Joke skit in the first episode of Monty Python.

Not that Monty Python invented that concept: jokes that make you laugh yourself to death feature in a Lord Dunsany story from 1915 and a comic poem written by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1830. My own Wikipedia coverage has accumulated some "basilisk" examples which should really be in the useful "Motif of harmful sensation" entry, if that hadn't been deleted for the terrible Wikicrime of Original Research. (Google can still find archived copies.) The TV Tropes site at – GOVERNMENT SANITY WARNING: this can be addictive – covers the topic under Brown Note, which I'm afraid means what you probably think it means.

When I bit the bullet and wrote a SF Encyclopedia article about this theme, I swiped the terminology from my own stories and titled it Basilisks. So there.

David Langford is waiting for Wikipedia to notice the SFE entry.