I'm trying to remember the name of a story that I think was a short story in a collection. It had to be from the 1980's or maybe earlier, but computers were definitely involved.

My mental image of the story has one computer user after another sitting down at a computer, seeing or reading something, then going catatonic or maybe even dying.

The thing they saw or read was some kind of joke or story that seemed to be able to short-circuit human brains.

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    Some options: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/BrownNote/Literature
    – Shawn
    Commented Mar 23 at 18:22
  • Thanks to everyone for great suggestions. It's definitely "The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution", by Christopher Cherniak, as suggested my Mark Foskey below. Still a great story. And I'll read all the other suggestions. Thanks again.
    – Djembot
    Commented Mar 24 at 19:33
  • It's worth noting that this is of course the same basic plot as the landmark monumental novel Infinite Jest (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_Jest) ...
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 24 at 23:25
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    Definitely the Funniest Joke; watch at your own peril!
    – bob1
    Commented Mar 25 at 1:29
  • The idea of deadly sensations goes back to ancient times (like the sight of the basilisk). For human-created deadly content, there's Ambrose Bierce's "The Suitable Surroundings", 1889.
    – aschepler
    Commented Mar 25 at 17:15

3 Answers 3


I suspect it is "The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution", by Christopher Cherniak, written in 1978 and reprinted in The Mind's I, by Hofstadter and Dennett.

It's written in the form of a report prepared while the events are going on. After three people become catatonic while working at their computers on a project, a biological contaminant is assumed, and an attempt is made to transfer the data via network to another notation, where people again start becoming catatonic, in a way that seems to be associated to exposure to a particular passage or idea. Eventually people seem to start thinking of it on their own and becoming catatonic. The coma-inducing idea becomes known as the Riddle, and the report does not actually propose a solution, but just emphasizes the urgency of finding one.

  • Is it an idea that is discovered independently by experts in fields logic, math, philosophy, and computer science? Does it prominently use a word like "semiotics".
    – Jetpack
    Commented Mar 24 at 4:14
  • Here it is: The Riddle of the Universe and its Solution. No it does not mention "semiotics" (unprovable self-referential sentences are all about syntax). Chris Cherniak (U.Maryland AI guy) is having fun with the idea of "human brain as an engine performing operations in mathematical logic that can throw an exception on certain sentences". A more serious analysis in Undebuggability and Cognitive Science Commented Mar 24 at 8:33
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    Bingo! Thank you! This is exactly the story I was trying to remember.
    – Djembot
    Commented Mar 24 at 19:29

Blit by David Langford, perhaps? In this story (see wiki article):

highly dangerous types of images called "basilisks" (after the legendary reptile) 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 first case of someone dying due to a BLIT involves someone who discovered the image with a computer. The main plot has people using the image as deadly graffiti - with the risk that the person creating the graffiti can be exposed too in spite of precautions.

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    As I recall, the image used as graffiti was called "The Parrot". This was the first thing I thought of when I read the question.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Mar 24 at 14:54

This could be Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. The plot centres around a neurolinguistic virus which is able to crash the human brain as well as computers. The antagonists have packaged this with an attractive metaverse "wrapper" to sucker victims into viewing it.

It was released in 1992, so the date doesn't entirely match, but it's over 30 years ago so we could allow for some slight error there.

  • No, computers don't care (otherwise you could not display it to another user through the metaverse as a bitmap that looks like a random bitstring) but the human brain does. Inside the Metaverse virtual reality: The Brandy holds the pair of tubes up in front of Da5id's immobilized face and spreads them apart. It's actually a scroll. She's unrolling it right in front of Da5id's face, spreading it apart like a flat two-dimensional screen in front of his eyes. Da5id's paralyzed face has taken on a bluish tinge as it reflects light coming out of the scroll. Commented Mar 24 at 8:46
  • Hiro walks around the table to look. He gets a brief glimpse of the scroll before the Brandy snaps it shut again. It is a living wall of light, like a flexible, flat-screened television set, and it's not showing anything at all. Just static. White noise. Snow. Then she's gone, leaving no trace behind. Desultory, sarcastic applause sounds from a few tables in the Hacker Quadrant. Commented Mar 24 at 8:46
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    @DavidTonhofer It does crash Da5id's avatar though, getting him ejected from the Black Sun - read to the end of that section you quoted. Hiro's bike also crashes when he gets close to the Raft. (Reason crashes during the firefight too, but that's presented as just a normal bug for a prototype system.)
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 24 at 12:38
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    Even if it's not what the OP was looking for, Snow Crash was the first thing the question brought to my mind. Commented Mar 25 at 13:25

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