By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ is a short story by the British-born science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008). It was first published in the 1953 anthology Star Science Fiction Stories #1, before being collected in Clarke’s The Other Side of the Sky.
A short tale about religion, computers, and the end of the world, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ deserves a few words of analysis in order to illuminate its meaning. First, though, let’s briefly summarise the story’s plot.
‘The Nine Billion Names of God’: plot summary
The story begins with the Dalai Lama making an unusual request of Dr Wagner, a man who works in computing. The lama wishes to hire an Automatic Sequence Computer from Wagner’s company and have it transported to the Tibetan mountains so that it can carry out an unusual function.
This function is as follows: the monks have been trying for three centuries to find out all the different names of God. Having narrowed down the range of possible letters to nine, which feature in a special alphabet devised by the monks, they now wish to discover all of the various names by which God is known. The computer will mean that a task which was set to take the monks fifteen thousand years will now be completed in a much shorter time.
In the next scene, we are transported to the Tibetan mountains, where an American computer engineer named George Hanley is part of the team working with the computer to complete the monks’ request. The computer processes all of the possible combinations of the nine letters, printing them out with an electronic typewriter onto paper, which the monks then place in books. They scrutinise the letter combinations the computer produces.
Hanley thinks the monks are ‘crazy’ for wanting to complete such a task, and he is anxious to return to America and leave the project behind. He talks to Chuck, another American working on the project, and Chuck tells him that he’s discovered what the monks believe will happen when all the various names of God are discovered: the world will come to an end.
They discuss delaying the computer’s completion of the task so it coincides with their departure from the valley, because they’re worried about the monks growing angry with them – and their computer – when nothing happens once the computer has completed the task. Although Hanley initially rejects such an idea, the following section implies they go through with the plan.
Seven days later, the two men are riding to their aeroplane which will fly them back to the States. Night falls and they travel through the darkness with the aid of torches. They discuss that the computer will be putting the finishing touches to its calculations around now. Then Chuck notices something in the sky, and when the two men look up, they see the stars are going out.
‘The Nine Billion Names of God’: analysis
Arthur C. Clarke’s story fuses the world of modern technology with the realm of ancient mysticism, and the Buddhist monks’ belief that, if they can discover ‘the nine billion names of God’, the universe will end, since (as Chuck explains to George Hanley) the human race will have achieved what it was created to do, and there will be no point in carrying on.
We might also say that the story fuses Oriental religion with Western science: Clarke devotes a substantial portion of the first section of the story reminding us that the Tibetan monks don’t have reliable access to electricity, for instance.
It is also a tale of apocalypse, or the end of the world, but rather than focusing on ecological disaster or nuclear war (as his contemporary, the US writer Ray Bradbury, was doing at this time in the early 1950s), Clarke’s tale is about the human race coming into knowledge of a mystical kind which marks its supreme achievement, and goal: to ‘know God’.
Indeed, there is something of Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction in ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, especially in its wry and playful fusing of mysticism with something as surprising, and utilitarian, as a modern computer. The old line that an infinite number of monkeys hammering away at typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare is here given a religious twist.
And certainly, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ plays on the idea that we, on earth, only partially ‘know’ God, and will only come face to face with him and know him fully when we have left this world behind and moved to the next. In a sense, the Buddhist monks of Clarke’s story are seeking to know God by word rather than image, and thus discover his true nature so that they can be brought closer to him.
During George and Chuck’s conversation, George draws a link between the Tibetan Buddhists and a ‘crackpot preacher’ in Louisiana who had convinced a number of people that the world was about to end. The notion that the devout want to will the end of the earthly realm so that they can come closer to God is found in virtually all major religions to some extent.
But what is notable about Clarke’s treatment of it in ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ is the way he plays off the computer programmers’ rather down-to-earth desires – their ambitions appear to extend no further than going home, getting back to their families and even to the familiar homeliness of television commercials – against the monks’ altogether more transcendent aims.
The description of the apocalypse could not be more anticlimactic at the end of the story: this is the world ending with not even whimper, let alone a bang, but a mere winking of stars as they disappear from the night sky ‘without a fuss’.
What is Clarke suggesting by such an ending? One possible interpretation is that he is reminding us that, sure enough, one day, the world will end. Our sun is on borrowed time; one day, life on Earth will cease to be completely and the solar system will be no more.
Of course, it’s unlikely that a rationalist such as Clarke believed that discovering the names of God would bring about this apocalypse (although we may detect some significance in the fact that such a discovery is only made possible by technology, by the invention of a supercomputer capable of carrying out the calculations), but in rejecting more dramatic ideas of the end of the world, he is reminding us that, nevertheless, the end of the world will arrive, one day.
Indeed, we may even posit that Clarke wrote ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ as a kind of riposte to all of the nuclear war stories being produced in the early 1950s. Even if man does not destroy himself imminently with nuclear weapons, Clarke’s story appears to suggest, something will happen to bring about the apocalypse.