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The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

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Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most famous science fiction authors ever, and part of the “Big Three” of the genre (along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein), passed away today.

In memory of this great science fiction writer I present “The Nine Billion Names of God”, the 1953 science fiction short story that was so good it won a retrospective Hugo award. It is about a company that sells a computer to a Tibetan monestary so they can quickly finish listing all the possible names of God and fulfill their destinies.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:
“The Nine Billion Names of God” follows three employees of a computer company as they sell, deliver and maintain a relatively large and fast computer to a group of Tibetan monks. The monks want the computer to help them print out all the possible names of God, of which they believe there are about nine billion. They figured it would take fifteen thousand years to do it by hand, but with a computer the task can be reduced to a thousand days. (Even that number seems ridiculously slow by today’s standards!)

The story is divided into two parts: the first describes Dr. Wagner as he makes the initial sale to a lama from the monastery, and the second part describes George and Chuck, the two men who delivered the computer to Tibet and are helping maintain it while it performs its duty. It is when the computer is almost finished with its task that George and Chuck discover why the monks want to print out all nine billion names – and it isn’t a cheerful reason either!

“This is a project on which we have been working for the last three centuries — since the lamasery was founded, in fact. It is somewhat alien to your way of thought, so I hope you will listen with an open mind while I explain it.”

“Naturally.”

“It is really quite simple. We have been compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We have reason to believe,” continued the lama imperturbably, “that all such names can be written with not more than nine letters in an alphabet we have devised.”

“And you have been doing this for three centuries?”

“Yes. We expected it would take us about fifteen thousand years to complete the task.”

My Two Cents:
The good:

  • A nice surprise ending!
  • Short and easy to read.
  • Its an Arthur C. Clarke story!

The bad:

  • It’s too short! Dang it – I wanted it to be longer!

I haven’t read much of Arthur C. Clarke’s stuff, only this story and another of his famous short stories, “The Star” both of which are incredible, especially given his non-religious nature. I did, however, quite enjoy the movies “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “2010: The Year We Make Contact” – though I haven’t read the books they were based on.

It is sad when one of the giants of my favorite genre passes away. I feel a twinge of melancholy, and believe that we will genuinely miss him – which is exactly how I felt when I learned of Isaac Asimov’s death back in 1992. However, he left us with a great collection of stories and novels, and he definitely left the science fiction genre better than he found it. Here’s to a great writer whom we will all dearly miss.

Arthur C. Clarke: 16 December 1917 – 19 March 2008

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 8
• Word Count: 2549

“The Nine Billion Names of God” garnered the following awards:

  • Winner of the 2004 Retro Hugo Award for Best Short Story
  • Placed seventh in the 1971 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll for short fiction
  • Placed eighth in the 1999 Locus All-Time Poll

Where you can find “The Nine Billion Names of God”:

  • This story first appeared in Star Science Fiction Stories in 1953.
  • “The Nine Billion Names of God” also appears in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke – the massive book containing nearly all of his short stories.
  • You can read a free online version of this short story at downlode.org.

Related Yet Still Interesting Links:

  • Did you know that Arthur C. Clarke was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America? Yep. A very small and select group to be in. You can learn more about this prolific and amazing science fiction author at Wikipedia.
  • My good friend Tinkoo has reviewed loads of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories and novels on his Arthur C. Clarke Fansite – be sure to check it out for more great stories from this amazing science fiction author.
  • Yahoo.com has a nice online obituary.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might like The Star, another famous and award winning short story by Arthur C. Clarke.

15 thoughts to “The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke”

  1. Thanks for plugging me dear. I see you came back with more positive impressions of this story than I did; I’ve linked your version from my “See Also” list for those seeking an alternate opinion.

  2. This is a Great story. I loved the ending and how he injects a bit of TS Eliot Four Quartets “there is an last time for everything.”

  3. Hi Rusty,

    This is my take on it from Quartet 3 (“And the time of death is every moment”) . .

    Just a note to say, I enjoy the blog and links. I am an aspiring SF writer . . and learning . . .

  4. Cali,

    Thanks for the kind words! I am having a blast writing this blog and reading so many cool scifi stories!

    I am also an aspiring science fiction writer, so reading a lot of stories has helped me come up with some great ideas. And hey – I am happy that there are actually people reading this blog!

  5. I really enjoyed this story especially the ending. This is only the second Clarke story I have read which makes make kick myself for not reading more of work before now.

    I read this story online through the link you provided although I also own the followng book: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumne 1, 1929 – 1964 which includes the story as well.

  6. Jeff,

    This was also one of the first Clarke short stories that I read. I have since read many more – he has some great stuff out there. Thanks for pointing out the book too.

  7. Great story Rusty. I saw so many people reading it today during the challenge that I could not longer resist and had to check it out myself. I almost hesitate to use the word, but it was a cute story. Very entertaining. A really nice flow to the whole story. I like the ending being almost an afterthought in its tone and yet pondering it makes you realize just how horrifying it would be if it actually happened.

  8. Carl,

    Yeah – that is totally how the ending felt: “an afterthought.” I’m glad you got around to reading it – it seems to be one of those stories that many, many people have read.

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