BLIT (short story)
"BLIT" (acronym of Berryman Logical Image Technique) is a science fiction short story by British writer David Langford. It features 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.
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 sees 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.
Reception and influence
Langford's later short story "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. Examples not mentioned include the short story White Cane 7.25 (1985) by Czech writer Ondřej Neff, A. E. van Vogt's War Against the Rull (1959), and John Barnes's Kaleidoscope Century (1996). The idea of a "lethal image" is also proposed as a weapon against the Borg in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "I, Borg". It is also similar to the plot of the 2002 horror film The Ring.
Authors Ken MacLeod and Greg Egan both acknowledge the idea with a specific reference to Langford – "the Langford hack" in The Cassini Division (1998) and "the Langford Mind-Erasing Fractal Basilisk" in Permutation City (1994). 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).
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 a BLIT image to see how long they last, inadvertently vaccinating themselves against it.
- Snow Crash, a novel involving a Basilisk-like image which crashes computers and minds, combined with the idea that language is a virus itself
- "Press Enter", a short story by John Varley, features a Basilisk-type image that causes humans to commit suicide after they see it
- The Funniest Joke In The World, a Monty Python sketch about a joke that causes people to literally laugh themselves to death
- Pontypool, Canadian horror film about a zombie-like contagion featuring echolalia and homicidal actions, transmitted using a specific set of spoken English words as a carrier signal via voice or radio