Subject: Infohazards (or, Langford's Basilisk, a history)
Posted on: 2020-02-01 15:30:29 UTC

Infohazards are one of my favorite fictional concepts. Concepts, ideas, or raw data so dangerous that being exposed to them can harm you. Essentially, killer memes.

The obvious example of this is Lovecraft, with his "things man was not meant to know", knowledge that would make you go mad. But there is a different sort of infohazard that has appeared in quite a number of pieces of science fiction that I've read. I shall dub it Langford's Basilisk.

Langford's Basilisk first appeared (to my knowledge anyways) in 1988, in the short story BLIT, written by David Langford. The concept was quite simple: there were certain images that could, essentially, crash the human mind. Langford would write four stories in this setting between 1988 and 2000, only one other of which is available online: the comp.basilisk FAQ. While I cannot prove that the other works I'm about to talk about were inspired by Langford, they all share common elements: images that break your brain.

If you're looking for other instances of Langford's Basilisk in fiction and you've read any cyberpunk at all, your immediate mental association for images that kill is likely to be 1992's Snow Crash. Which and I just want make this totally clear, an incredible book that is one of my all-time favorites. Langford's Basilisk is back, this time in the form of the metavirus, or rather, Snow Crash. Look at it and you're dead. Of course, the actual mechanics are a little bit different, to fit Snow Crash's themes. There's a greater focus on the connections between humans and machines, and the whole story is thematically drenched in memetics with a side of Summerian mythology because Neil Stephenson writes books based on whatever he happened to be interested in at that exact moment and I woudn't have it any other way.

While there are other instances of Langford's Basilisk out there, the last case I want to talk about is Charles Stross's Laundry Files. I adore the Laundry files, I like them enough to have written an agent from the setting, and its versions of Langford's Basilisk are as uniquely eldritch as you might expect from a series that's part lovecraft and part spy novel all tied together by a loose collection of computing in-jokes (the protagonist's pseudonym is Bob Oliver Francis Howard for crying out loud), and white-collar office drudgery. There are images, fractals, and mathematical equations that will turn you into a zombie, or into a vampire. Or you can master the eldritch tongue and become a sorcerer... and your brain will slowly be eaten by your magic. So that's fun too, although less directly connected.

Although one interesting thing about the Laundry Files is that they have a sort of... reverse Lanford's Basilisk, in the form of Medusa Syndrome and basilisk guns. Langford's Basilisk is a phenomenon in the observer that causes them to die. The Laundry's Medusa Syndrome causes the observer to destroy that which they observe by turning at least part of it to stone, causing a ton of radation in the process. If you want to see this and don't want to read the full series, the excellent short story Concrete Jungle covers it and provides an excellent feel for early Laundry.

If you can think of any other cool instances of infohazards or related, feel free to discuss them below.

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