David Lang­ford has in­spired some un­pleas­ant sights

SFX - - Front page - David Lang­ford is wait­ing for Wikipedia to no­tice the SFE en­try.

Lang­ford talks frac­tals, while Bon­nie gets arach­nid.

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 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 sten­cil- spray ur­ban walls with a lethal graphic mys­te­ri­ously called the Par­rot.

Years later ( see SFX is­sue 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 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 on­line stole a sin­is­ter- look­ing, vaguely bird­shaped 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

In­for­ma­tion so in­di­gestible that it lit­er­ally kills you

Wheel Of Time. But owing to un­be­liev­able mod­esty I have to keep ex­plain­ing that 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 Monty Python episode.

The Pythons didn’t in­vent that, ei­ther: 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. TV Tropes ( – a dan­ger­ously ad­dic­tive site – cov­ers the topic un­der Brown Note, which I’m afraid means what you prob­a­bly think it means.

When I bit the bul­let and wrote an SF En­cy­clo­pe­dia ar­ti­cle about this theme, I ti­tled it Basilisks. So there.

SF writer David Lang­ford has had a col­umn in SFX since is­sue one. David has re­ceived 29 Hugo Awards through­out his ca­reer. His cel­e­brated SF news­let­ter can be found at http:// news. an­si­ble. co. uk. He is a prin­ci­pal ed­i­tor of the SF En­cy­clo­pe­dia at http:// www. sf- en­cy­clo­pe­dia. com.

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