Basilisks

Tagged: Theme

The concept of pure information as a Weapon which adversely affects the mind or body is a recurring sf theme. Many authors have given this form of science-fictional spin to a notion grounded in mythology, where the basilisk is an imaginary creature which (like Medusa and her sister Gorgons) can kill with a glance; and in Horror, where sights too dreadful to look upon are commonplace. One notable innovation of H P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos sequence is its presentation of unspeakable, mind-withering entities as essentially Alien rather than supernatural; associated apocryphal texts harmful to sanity if not to life include (most famously) Lovecraft's Necronomicon and the titular play-script of Robert W Chambers's The King in Yellow (coll 1895; cut 1902; with different cuts vt The Mask, and Other Stories 1929). In similar vein, the "Tablets of the Gods" in Algernon Blackwood's "The Man who Found Out" (December 1912 The Canadian Magazine) offer soul-destroying revelations about the nature of existence.

In Genre SF, A M Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (17 February-21 April 1934 Scoops as "Space"; 1937) features the "Gabble", a Martian broadcast whose sound gradually induces madness until defeated by the ingenious tactic of disabling the radio receiver. One of the strange Inventions appearing in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (written circa 1940; 1967) is paint of a colour that cannot be looked at without becoming blinded and deranged. The Weapons of the titular Aliens in A E van Vogt's The War Against the Rull (stories April 1940-February 1950 Astounding; fixup 1959) include "nerve lines", simple patterns that implant dangerous Hypnotic commands when viewed; Philip E High echoes this with convulsion-inducing chalked marks in Speaking of Dinosaurs (1974). Scientists trying to assimilate the totality of alien knowledge benevolently made available in Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957) are killed by sheer mental overload, a trope echoed in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Deadly information can be coded in many ways: an early text basilisk, a story that kills its readers, features in Ambrose Bierce's "The Suitable Surroundings" (14 July 1889 San Francisco Examiner) and is echoed in J G Ballard's "Now: Zero" (1959 Science Fantasy #38), a tale which itself will supposedly cause one to succumb to the death command embedded in its text. The twisted logic of the eponymous Chess opening in "Von Goom's Gambit" (April 1966 Chess Review) by Victor Contoski is harmful to opponents' and spectators' sanity. Subliminal television advertising through "blipverts" in Max Headroom proves explosively lethal for some viewers.

On a grander scale, the "Destroyer sequence" which jams interstellar communication in Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony is an intergalactic transmission that begins as a visual tutorial in symbolic logic and escalates to concepts that wipe out any mind sufficiently intelligent to comprehend them. A coincidental Parody appearing in the same month as Macroscope was the first episode of the BBC television comedy Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974), whose "World's Funniest Joke" skit developed the notion of death by uncontrollable laughter. This theme of deadly hilarity was foreshadowed in the comic verse "The Height of the Ridiculous" (July 1830 The Collegian) by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and in Lord Dunsany's deal-with-the-devil fantasy "The Three Infernal Jokes" (July 1915 The Smart Set). Also in the realm of Humour, victims of the Total Perspective Vortex in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) are compelled to realize their utter insignificance in the context of the universe at large, a demoralization which normally proves fatal. A complexly haunted scrap of film brings death a week after being viewed in Kōji Suzuki's Ring (1991), filmed as Ring (1998).

Some other foci of disabling if not necessarily fatal obsession are discussed under Meme. The titular objects of Jorge Luis Borges's "The Zahir" (in El Aleph, coll 1949, as "El Zahir") and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996) – a coin and a movie respectively – irresistibly fill their victims' entire conceptual field of attention.

A now common Computer metaphor of basilisk images and concepts suggests that they represent a data input which halts or crashes the mind's computational processes (> Douglas Hofstadter). The coma-inducing "Riddle" of Christopher Cherniak's "The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution" (1978; in The Mind's I, anth 1981, ed Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel C Dennett), which cannot be isolated from the mass of data which contains it because identification is fatal, is tentatively described as "the Gödel sentence for the human Turing machine" – in short, an input that cannot be safely processed. A similar rationalization of mind-destroying fractal images in "Blit" (September/October 1988 Interzone) by David Langford proved mildly influential in sf circles, and is explicitly acknowledged in Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994), Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division (1998) and Charles Stross's Accelerando (fixup 2005) and Laundry series.

The Cyberspace metaphor, in which human minds interact directly with computer-generated realities, naturally suggests that the brain may become vulnerable to Computer viruses or trojan software. William Gibson's "Burning Chrome" (July 1982 Omni) introduced cyberspace defences known as ice – an acronym for Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics – with "black ice" being fatal to the nervous systems of unwary intruders. A more complex human-transmissible computer virus which effectively "crashes" the brain via the visual cortex appears in Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson, and is linked to a primordial virus of language (> Linguistics) which supposedly long ago required extreme countermeasures that gave rise to the legend of Babel. In China Miéville's Embassytown (2011), a colonized Alien race, whose absolutely literal two-voiced "Language" is incapable of articulating untruths, cannot cope when that "Language" is uttered aloud by twinned (but incompatible) humans; a native exposed to an "embedded contradiction" of this sort – which is not so much information as the intolerable impossibility of its utterance – is instantly addicted to this poison and soon dies.

A relevant Wikipedia entry, "Motif of harmful sensation", has been deleted [see links below for a partial mirror of this article]. [DRL]

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