BLIT (short story)

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"BLIT"
AuthorDavid Langford
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inInterzone
Publication typeMagazine
Publication date1988

"BLIT" (acronym of Berryman Logical Image Technique) is a 1988 science fiction short story by the British writer David Langford.

It has a setting where highly dangerous types of images called "basilisks" have been discovered; these images contain patterns within them that exploit flaws in the structure of the human mind to produce a lethal reaction, effectively "crashing" the mind the way a computer program crashes when given data that it fails to process.[1][2][3]

Summary[edit]

The story is broken up into sections of narrative and expository sections on the nature of the "basilisks" or "BLITs" written in a pseudo-scientific style. The expository sections detail the accidental discovery of the "basilisks" at Cambridge University, and attempts to give explanations for why the basilisks are so harmful to humans, including that they are "Gödelian 'spoilers', implicit programs which the human equipment cannot safely run", or that they produce neurochemical "memotoxins" in the human brain that cause it to die.

The narrative sections detail a young man named Robbo, a member of a racist far-right terrorist organisation known as the "Albion Action Group", who enters a majority-Asian area in order to spray a basilisk known as the "Parrot" on walls. He wears "shatter-goggles", which blur and distort his vision like a kaleidoscope, to avoid looking at the "Parrot". As he is approaching a gay pub to spray the "Parrot" on to the wall, he is caught by a police officer who blinds him with a flash-light, causing Robbo to accidentally unfurl the stencil of the "Parrot" and instantaneously kill him. Robbo is subsequently arrested and taken to the police station where the police lament that they can't put him in prison because there aren't yet laws against spraying "basilisks" on walls. Instead they beat Robbo to get information out of him and it is implied they throw him down the stairs, before locking him up in a holding cell.

As Robbo sits alone in his cell, he thinks about the fact he can't possibly be put away for his crimes and comes to the conclusion that "in the long run he [is] OK", and idly finds himself imagining the distorted image of the "Parrot" he has seen through his "shatter-goggles". However, he realises that he has looked at the image through the goggles so many times that his brain is now able to "decode" it from the distorted fragments in his memory. The story ends with Robbo trying desperately not to imagine the "Parrot", but to no avail, and he is killed by its effects.

Release[edit]

"BLIT" was first published in the September-October 1988 issue of Interzone. It has been followed by three sequel pieces, the first of which was released in 1990 as "What Happened at Cambridge IV".[4] "BLIT" was republished in Interzone: The 4th Anthology (1989) and in a 2004 collection of Langford's works, Different Kinds of Darkness.[5][6]

Themes[edit]

The story marked a departure for Langford from his typically humorous storytelling style.[7] It also introduced the concept of the "basilisk" to science fiction literature.[8] This term was used within the story to identify highly dangerous types of images that contain patterns within them that exploit flaws in the structure of the human mind to produce a lethal reaction, effectively "crashing" the mind the way a computer program crashes when given data that it fails to process.[1][2][3]

Basilisk[edit]

Basilisks are images that are capable of crashing the human mind by triggering thoughts that the mind is physically or logically incapable of thinking.[9][10] The image's name comes from the basilisk, a legendary reptile said to have the power to cause death with a single glance.

The idea has appeared elsewhere; in one of his novels, Ken MacLeod has characters explicitly mention (and worry about encountering) the "Langford Visual Hack".[11] Similar references, also mentioning Langford by name, feature in works by Greg Egan[11] and Charles Stross.

Sequels[edit]

The story has three sequels: "What Happened at Cambridge IV", "comp.basilisk FAQ", and "Different Kinds of Darkness". The last story imagines a post-apocalyptic world where BLIT images are everywhere, and millions have already been murdered by terrorist attacks utilizing them. Television and the internet have been outlawed due to the proliferation of BLIT images. In order to protect children, special chips have been planted in their brains that creates a subjective and artificial darkness (which the children call "type-two darkness") to obscure any possible BLIT image they may inadvertently look at. The main characters, all school children, form the "Shudder Club", where they take turns looking at an illicitly obtained non-lethal BLIT image to see how long they last, inadvertently vaccinating themselves against it.

"COMP.BASILISK FAQ", first published in Nature in December 1999, mentions William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957), J. B. Priestley's The Shapes of Sleep (1962), and Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969) as containing a similar idea.[12]

Reception[edit]

Reception for the story has been positive and Susie Vrobel has written that "BLIT" has become well known for its use of fractal patterns.[13] Matthew Sanborn Smith reviewed "BLIT" for StarShipSofa in 2008.[14] John Clute noted that "Like the fractal caltrap it describes, David Langford's stunning "Blit" gives off a steely medusoid glare; and one is very glad the tale is so short".[15]

Cultural influence[edit]

Authors Ken MacLeod and Greg Egan both acknowledge the idea with a specific reference to Langford – "the Langford visual hack" in The Cassini Division (1998) and "the Langford Mind-Erasing Fractal Basilisk" in Permutation City (1994).[1] Charles Stross also refers to a type of magical ward known as the "Langford Death Parrot" in The Fuller Memorandum (2010) and "Basilisk attacks" with "Langford fractals" in Accelerando (2005).[16][17][18] Acknowledging these inspirations, SF Encyclopedia noted that this story has "proved mildly influential in sf circles".[19] "Basilisk hacks" that affect the mind of any transhuman who perceives them are a primary method of operation of the Exsurgent Virus in the science-fiction/horror role-playing game Eclipse Phase.[20]

The concept of "basilisk hack" has also been mentioned in scholarly literature, with Langford's BLIT story attributed as its origins.[21]

See also[edit]

  • McCollough effect, a real-world optical illusion that, after viewing, can cause long-term changes in visual perception.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Langford, David (2003-08-01). Up Through an Empty House of Stars. Wildside Press LLC. p. 228. ISBN 978-1-59224-055-5. When I planned a story about this kind of offbeat weapon, I started from the ... Oddly enough, that short story "Blit" (readable on the Infinity Plus SF web ...
  2. ^ a b Westfahl, Gary (2021). Science fiction literature through history : an encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California. p. 232. ISBN 978-1-4408-6617-3. OCLC 1224044572. David Langford’s Blit (1988) features images generated by fractals that drive people insane.
  3. ^ a b "Author Spotlight: David Langford". Lightspeed. 2012-05-22. Retrieved 2021-08-20.
  4. ^ Stableford, Brian (2006-09-06). Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 98. ISBN 978-1-135-92374-7.
  5. ^ Langford, David (2004). Different kinds of darkness : short stories. Holicong, Pa.: Cosmos Books. ISBN 1-59224-121-2. OCLC 55637740.
  6. ^ Interzone, the 4th anthology : new science fiction and fantasy writing. John Clute, David Pringle, Simon Ounsley. London: New York. 1989. ISBN 0-671-69707-2. OCLC 22637126.CS1 maint: others (link)
  7. ^ Ashley, Mike (2016-07-01). Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990. Oxford University Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-78138-440-4.
  8. ^ Singler, Beth (2018-02-26). "Roko's Basilisk or Pascal's? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion". Implicit Religion. 20 (3): 286. doi:10.1558/imre.35900. ISSN 1463-9955.
  9. ^ Westfahl, Gary (2021). Science fiction literature through history : an encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California. p. 232. ISBN 978-1-4408-6617-3. OCLC 1224044572. David Langford’s Blit (1988) features images generated by fractals that drive people insane.
  10. ^ "Author Spotlight: David Langford". Lightspeed Magazine. 2012-05-22. Retrieved 2021-08-20.
  11. ^ a b "What if ... the human brain could be hacked into?". Ansible.uk. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  12. ^ Langford, David (December 1999). "Comp.basilisk Faq". Nature. 402 (6761): 465. Bibcode:1999Natur.402..465L. doi:10.1038/44964.
  13. ^ Vrobel, Susie (2011-01-07). Fractal Time: Why A Watched Kettle Never Boils. World Scientific. p. 157. ISBN 978-981-4465-48-9.
  14. ^ "Aural Delights No 51 Jeff VanderMeer". StarShipSofa. Retrieved 2021-08-24.
  15. ^ Clute, John (2016-11-24). Pardon This Intrusion. Orion Publishing Group. p. 239. ISBN 978-1-4732-1979-3.
  16. ^ "Don't Look Now". ansible.uk. Retrieved 2021-08-25.
  17. ^ SFFWorld. "The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross – SFFWorld". Retrieved 2021-08-25.
  18. ^ "David Langford – Links to On-Line Writing". ansible.uk. Retrieved 2021-08-25.
  19. ^ "Themes : Basilisks : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia". www.sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2021-08-25.
  20. ^ Blumenstein, Lars; Boyle, Rob; Cross, Brian; Graham, Dr Jack; Snead, John; Baugh, Bruce (2009-10-14). Eclipse Phase. InMediaRes Productions. p. 365. ISBN 978-1-934857-16-8.
  21. ^ Singler, Beth (22 May 2018). "Roko's Basilisk or Pascal's? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion | Singler | Implicit Religion". Implicit Religion. 20 (3). doi:10.1558/imre.35900.

Sources[edit]