Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 43: The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke, Arthur C. "The Nine Billion Names of God." Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl. Ballantine Books, February 1953.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        8/10

" 'This is a slightly unusual request,' said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint."

Cover art by Richard Powers

The Tibetan lamasery hires an Automated Sequence Computer and a pair of engineers to complete a project that was begun three thousand years ago: to write out the nine billion possible names for God. The lamas believe that it would take another fifteen thousand years to complete the task by hand, whereas a modern computer would in ten days succeed in delivering the final list. The task is important to the lamas as they believe that God created humans for this duty only, and that the completion of the task is the fulfillment of humanity's purpose, so that once the nine billion names have been isolated, the world as we know it will come to an end.

A simple yet wonderful short story, it manages despite its briefness and unwavering focus to touch upon a number of contrasting realities. The most obvious is combining ancient religious beliefs with modern technology. The lamasery, we are repeatedly informed, is isolated from the rest of the world. It is high upon a mountain overlooking the surrounding quiet rural landscape, and even the computer components can only be delivered to India, where the locals would then cart them to their final destination for reassembly. The lamasery has no access to electricity, and has only recently obtained a generator that will allow the computer to complete its task. In contrast with the lamasery, the story opens in a high-rise building in New York City, where the lama is meeting with the specialist Dr. Wagner, their conversation surrounded by "the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below." The western engineers located for three months in the Tibetan mountains are tired of their peaceful setting and long for television, not its entertainment value necessarily, since "even the sight of a TV commercial would seem like manna from heaven." The western idea of heavenly gifts comes in the form of television, whereas the eastern ideal is to complete their purpose to God.

Another contrast between east and west comes in the form of the anecdote of the Louisiana "crackpot preacher who once said the world was going to end next Sunday." When the world did not end, his congregation was not upset, despite panicking and selling off their homes, thinking he had made a mistake but wanting more than anything to believe. These Tibetan monks are careful not to panic the public, keeping their motivations secret for the most part, and satisfied not by maintaining a congregation, but by pursuing the responsibilities they believe were delegated by God.

There is an eerie connotation in the story that strikes a chord with more modern sensibilities, and that is the implication that modern technology will help bring about the end of humanity. Whether or not this is Clarke's belief, or if he was criticizing western society for having such inconsequential ambitions in comparison with the east, or an amalgamation of various thoughts rather than firm beliefs, can be argued. What is most charming here, as with his short story "The Star," is that for a man heralded for his understanding and pursuit of the sciences, he is able to write the most affecting science fiction stories that uphold un-scientific religious beliefs.

And of course there is that excellent, understated last line.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 43: By His Bootstraps by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein, Robert A. "By His Bootstraps." Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1941.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        6/10

"Bob Wilson did not see the circle grow."

Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" was chosen
for the cover of ASF October 1941

Bob Wilson has locked himself in his room in order to complete his graduate thesis, disavowing the notion of time travel, when his future self appears through a time gate. This future self, referring to himself as "Joe," urges Wilson to step through the gate, claiming that a great future lies ahead. Wilson, sleep-deprived and irritable, is unable to recognize his future self and refuses to comply, when a third version of himself appears. This third version is from a farther future, and refutes the second incarnation's claims. The three selves get into a brawl, and Wilson is conveniently shoved through the gate, because otherwise we would not have much of a story.

On the other side, Wilson encounters Diktor, the controller of the time gate, who claims Wilson has stepped 30,000 years into his future. He informs Wilson that the gift of the time gate was bestowed to humanity by a race of aliens referred to as the "High Ones," who essentially enslaved humanity and transformed them into meek creatures. Here, among the spineless humans of the future, Wilson could make himself king.

A great concept raising many paradoxes of time travel, as Heinlein frequently did (see " 'All You Zombies...' "). Interesting as an idea, but as a story it is overlong, tiresomely repetitive and predictable. In addition, I don't care for the jocular tone, which worked better for a story like "--And He Built a Crooked House" published the same year (perhaps Heinlein was in that mood at the time) and both published in Astounding Science Fiction (perhaps editor John W. Campbell was in the mood for such hilarity). It worked in Crooked because of the absurd scenario and caricatures, but this story aims to be more complex with more serious undertones, and the light tone is not helped by the story being flat-out unfunny (arguably dated--again a "perhaps" as in 1941 some readers may have gotten a kick out of beautiful enslaved girls who can be owned and traded by men who do not give a thought to anything other than their physical appearance). None of this is helped by the story's protagonist who is conveniently not too smart (despite attempting to write a seemingly complex thesis) and therefore easily manipulated.

"By His Bootstraps" was published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, under the byline Anson MacDonald. It was the lead story, a novella, and shared the issue with another novella by Heinlein, "Common Sense," so that of the 164 pages of that issue, 73 of them were from Heinlein's typewriter. "Bootstraps" proved in the long term to be more popular, and since it is a recognizable Heinlein story, it is interesting that it was printed under a pseudonym and not reserved for another issue. I have not read "Common Sense," and it appears to be more recognizable as the second half of the novel Orphans in the Sky, and while the first half, "Universe," had already been published in ASF in the May issue of that same year, as a sequel "Common Sense" needed to carry Heinlein's name. The cover, as well as the interior art accompanying the novella, were produced by Hubert Rogers. The cover illustration depicts the time gate with the three versions of Wilson, and in the backdrop the two different time periods in which he settles.

For more of this week's Wednesday short stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 42: "—And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein, Robert A. " '—And He Built a Crooked House' ." Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1941.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Outside, the night was cold and wet, but in the small living room the curtains were closed and the
fire burned brightly.

Ambitious experimental architect Quintus Teal conceives of a house in the form of a tesseract. His persistence convinces friend Homer Bailey to invest in having it built, since his socialite wife would be proud to own and show off such an unusual house of the future. Constructed quickly, the house on the outside is an unimpressive cube, but on the inside it is a vast structure with eight rooms. As the house is four dimensional, however, when Teal and the new owners attempt to leave they instead find themselves in a different room, as each part of the house loops into another. Moreover, the views through some of the windows are from various parts of the country and perhaps even the world and beyond into other worlds. Not just looping, the house extends itself well into the other dimension.

The trio, with Teal in the lead, attempt to find a way out of the tesseract house.

An enjoyable story and a good concept. The characters are basic Heinlein and annoying more often than not, but they suit the story that at the same time delivers a scathing version of Los Angeles. The story is both satirical, poking fun at LA and its inhabitants, at architecture and the idea of the modern aesthetic, while maintaining its focus on mathematical and geometric logic.

I am generally mixed about Heinlen, but aside from the annoying protagonist and comical tone, I did enjoy this one.

free counters

As of 24 December 2015