The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

First published in Star Science Ficiton Stories No. 1, 1953.

You can listen to this one via youtube in this excellent reading in two parts.

This one’s pretty famous. It’s widely anthologised and was a given some kind of retrospective award in 1970 as one of the best science fiction stories ever, or something like that. I’ve read it enough times that I nearly didn’t have to bother this time around because I know it almost off by heart; I think it even came up at school once.

On this nine-billionth reread, it still stands up as a curious and ambiguous tale that does its job with admirable economy. However, I think there’s something a little going on at the heart of this one. In some ways isn’t a science fiction story at all. In fact, it’s more like a horror story.

The story begins with a devil’s bargain: Dr Wagner of an unnamed computer company is offered a fortune by a mysterious character from the East in exchange for access to a Mark V computer. He means to to cast a magic spell and invoke the name of God!

‘Call it a ritual if you like, but it’s a fundamental part of our belief. All the many names of the Supreme Being – God, Jehova, Allah, and so on – they are only man-made labels. There is a philosophical problem of some difficulty here, which I do not propose to discuss, but somewhere among all those possible combinations of letters which can occur are what one may call the real names of God. By systematic permutation of letters, we have been trying to list them all.’

He’s not strictly a devil worshipper – in fact he’s a kindly Lama from a Tibetan monastery – but we soon learn his purpose. Two engineers are despatched to the monastery to install the computer that will calculate the names of God, and one of them asks his hosts what they’re trying to do.

‘They believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon there are are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’

‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’

There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up… bingo!’

So, do these engineers do anything to prevent what sounds like the apocalypse? Of course not, they don’t believe all that nonsense! But even so, there’s a hint of unease about the whole situation. Clarke portrays this very subtly in the dialogue:

‘Oh I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’

Chuck gave a nervous chuckle.

‘That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, “It’s nothing as trivial as that”’

George thought this over for a moment.

By this stage a reader may have some idea about what’s going to happen, and horror is all about anticipation: Lovecraft called it dread, the knowledge that the bad thing is coming just no knowing how or when. But the engineers interpret this unease as a fear that when the universe doesn’t end – as they know it won’t – they’ll get the blame and there’ll be hell to pay. They arrange to beat a hasty retreat before the project is due to be completed and then… well, we surely all know what happens next (listen to audio book if you haven’t figured it out by now – if you’ve never read the story it’s highly effective and worth it for the last few lines).

On the surface this looks like an effective and somewhat droll tale of scientific hubris. I’m sure that’s the main reason for it’s popularity, but there’s something else going on, I think. Like a lot of horror stories, there’s something ambiguous about the monster: the jolly Tibetan monks aren’t evil. In fact they are acting in accordance with God’s holy will, so much so that the the most advanced technology abides by it. This isn’t against nature, it’s entirely in keeping with it.

And what will become of life and humanity? Is it the end? No. As the monks tell them, ‘it’s much more serious than that’. There’s an implication that rather than extinction, there’s something more in store for humanity, as presumably the monks had some kind of Nirvana in mind.

Behind it all, then is a kind of rapture. Clarke essayed a similar theme in his novel Childhood’s End, also in 1953, and them then most famously with Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As in those stories, God has been replaced by some kind of technological construct, enigmatic visitors with their own inscrutable purpose for humanity.

So, this is another story addressing the problem of living in a godless universe. The Quest for Saint Aquin suggested just carrying on, as the existence or otherwise of God didn’t matter that much. In Clarke’s stories, the solution is to demote God to being a highly evolved form of natural life. Perhaps it’s a corollary to his famous aphorism about technology and magic: any sufficiently evolved life form will be indistinguishable from God.

Themes: Rapture, scientific hubris, Eastern religion, computers.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Golden Age of Science Fiction
2 comments on “The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke
  1. Stephen says:

    A *cosmic* horror story, no less. I think I told you that I read a lot of Clarke when I was a teenager. Most of his stuff doesn’t work for me now, but this story certainly does.

  2. Patrick says:

    Very much so! The Fire Within from vol 3 of the History of books was very much the same. Cosmic awe/horror and that far apart really and they’ve both been a huge part of the stories I’ve read over the last few years.

    Clarke was an anthology regular back in the day, so I must have read a few of his stories, and I’m sure at least one single author collection (probably a 70s one with The Sentinel in it), but I never got far with his novels. I found 2001 a bit of a slog… but now I recall I did also read 2010, but cut my losses at that point.

    I really appreciate the craft he brings to this story and The Fire Within, though. They do their job with great subtlty. He’s one of a small list – Robert Sheckley’s on it too, probably a couple of others I can’t think of – who I’d like read rediscover. (There’s a reasnbly priced Collected Stories available on Kindle, but I think I’d prefer a shorter selected volume.)

    Also, you are the first commenter on the new site – congratulations, you win a pint of beer! However, you have to come to London to collect it.

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