Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 44: 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.

1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

I think with this one, Clarke was making a bit more of a cosmic joke, while "The Star" was a bit more of a challenge to orthodox religious thought, at least among Xians.

free counters

As of 24 December 2015