Byte Magazine Cover on LISP, A Space Odyssey, Nietzsche

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .
byte mag cover 1979-08 lisp
Byte magazine cover, 1979 August. (image from a lisp hacker Kazimir Majorinc At Used with permission)

What is the overall meaning of this drawing? The first time i saw this, i thought of one thing, but next day, looking at this pic again, i got a opposite impression.

At first i thought it's a tombstone. The apparant message being: lisp is dead. Quite funny how the inscriptions are all lisp code with caar and caddr, and the tomestone in some alien planet background with astronauts looking at it. But “lisp is dead” proclaimed in 1979?? The next day, i realized that the tombstone i see is the giant mysterious monolith, a theme borrowed from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. (I saw the film twice in the past, and love it.)

On reading Wikipedia about 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), quote:

The film has a memorable soundtrack—the result of the association that Kubrick made between the spinning motion of the satellites and the dancers of waltzes, which led him to use the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss II, and the famous symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, to portray the philosophical evolution of Man theorized in Nietzsche's homonymous work.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Richard Strauss, Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra the Music

I'm familiar with The Blue Danube waltz, but which is the “Also sprach Zarathustra”? Ah, that's the film's opening theme song, sometimes known as the “sunrise”.

Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra the Philosophy

But more interesting is the mentioning of nihilist philosopher Nietzsche. Reading on Wikipedia: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, i found several interesting things. Quote:

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (German: Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen) is a philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, composed in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Much of the work deals with ideas such as the “eternal recurrence of the same”, the parable on the “death of God”, and the “prophecy” of the Overman, which were first introduced in The Gay Science.

Described by Nietzsche himself as “the deepest ever written,” the book is a dense and esoteric treatise on philosophy and morality, featuring as protagonist a fictionalized prophet descending from his recluse to mankind, Zarathustra. A central irony of the text is that Nietzsche mimics the style of the Bible in order to present ideas which fundamentally oppose Christian and Jewish morality and tradition.

You know how today with New Atheism movement, there's the catchy phrase “death of God”. That phrase is actually popularized by Nietzsche's book. Quote from Wikipedia's “god is dead” article:

“God is dead” never meant that Nietzsche believed in an actual God who first existed and then died in a literal sense. It may be more appropriate to consider the statement as Nietzsche's way of saying that the conventional “God” of 19th century middle class Christianity is no longer a viable or believable source of any received wisdom. Nietzsche recognizes the crisis which the death of God represents for existing moral considerations, because “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands.” This is why in “The Madman”, a work which primarily addresses atheists, the problem is to retain any system of values in the absence of a divine order.

Strauss's music is inspired by Nietzsche's philosophical work of the same name. The work's main character is named Zarathustra, which is actually borrowed from a “ancient Iranian prophet and philosopher Zoroaster”.

Zoroaster , also known as Zarathustra , Zarathushtra Spitama or Ashu Zarathushtra was an ancient Iranian-speaking spiritual leader who founded what is now known as Zoroastrianism. His teachings challenged the existing traditions of the Indo-Iranian religion and inaugurated a movement that eventually became the dominant religion in Ancient Persia. He was a native speaker of Old Avestan and lived in the eastern part of the Iranian Plateau, but his exact birthplace is uncertain.

The Giant Monolith

That eerie giant black monolith featured in A Space Odyssey, always seems a bit strange to me in the film. I realized that is also inspired from Nietzsche's work. Quote:

Thus Spoke Zarathustra was conceived while Nietzsche was writing The Gay Science; he made a small note, reading “6,000 feet beyond man and time,” as evidence of this. More specifically, this note related to the concept of the Eternal Recurrence, which is, by Nietzsche's admission, the central idea of Zarathustra; this idea occurred to him by a “pyramidal block of stone” on the shores of Lake Silvaplana in the Upper Engadine, a high alpine region whose valley floor is at 6,000 ft.

How Much Do You Know of the World?

It's quite interesting that a mag cover lead to so many discoveries, deep and old. I learned in my experience in particular of readings in the past 7 years, that a person can know so little of our society, surroundings. I felt, for a healthy society today, each person should have equivalent of 3 university degrees, 2 in humanities.

(See: Futuristic Calamity. (i've been spending some 40 hours per week reading in the past 7 years. And i probably spend equal amount of time studying before that, so that's 14 years of full time study. (not counting reading or studies on materials below highschool level in my younger years) A university degree full time is 4 years. So, if my readings quality as higher education study, 14 years would be 3.5 university degrees. Though, i felt i knew little.))

In 2007, i was slaving in Second Life's sex world all day, which led to the Gorean role playing communities, which led me to read about John Norman's novel “Chronicles of Gor”, which led me to Nietzsche's concept of Master-slave morality. That's the first time, i got some basic concept of who Nietzsche is and his philosophies. (See: Goreans in Second Life.)

Note that Byte magazine was a very successful magazine. It was sold in 1998 and the new owner shut it down for business reasons. Apparently, very controversial at the time. BYTE Magazine's senior editor, wrote about the incidence. See:

Kazimir Majorinc ( is very kind to supply the following info from the Byte mag:

About the Cover

This month, Ken Lodding has created a fantasy on far-out application with a Lisp theme. The surface of some asteroid has been discovered. A monolith engraved with the S-expression form of a Lisp program is gazed upon by some astronauts. We presume some archeology of this monolith will have to be done to uncover the balance of the program. We leave it to readers familiar with LISP to identify the textbook from which these S-expression fragment were taken, and the purpose of the program.