Hello, David, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What can you tell me about the origins of your story, “Different Kinds of Darkness?”
The notion of basilisk images was something I’d had in mind ever since reading Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Hofstadter’s favourite analogy for the impact of Gödel’s Theorem on mathematics is a music recording that can’t be played because its resonances destroy the playing mechanism. That set me wondering about images that the human optical software can’t process, leading to a 1988 Interzone story called “BLIT.”
Other writers seemed to like the idea—that first story has been referenced in fiction by Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, and others.
This story sees a very different type of terrorism: one that strikes by a mere glance (it actually reminds me much of a Monty Python sketch about a deadly joke), rather than explosive vests or car bombs.
The Monty Python link occurred to me later, and I slipped this into the follow-up piece “comp.basilisk FAQ” written for the short-short SF spot in Nature.
This also references fictional research leading to the first basilisk image, but that’s another story (called “What Happened at Cambridge IV” and reprinted in my collection Different Kinds of Darkness). The “World’s Funniest Joke” sketch was in fact anticipated in an 1830 poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and of course the Ghastly Thing Too Dreadful To Gaze Upon is an old horror trope with deep roots in mythology. There used to be a handy Wikipedia article on this general theme, called “Motif of harmful sensation.” This was deleted for the dire crime of “original research” but can still be found online.
Meanwhile, John Clute urged me to write an equivalent SF Encyclopedia entry, titled “Basilisks.”
Which, as the little girl in James Thurber’s anecdote didn’t quite say, will probably tell you more about SF basilisks than you wished to know.
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