The Nine Billion Names of God • 1953 • SF short story by Arthur C. Clarke

★★★★★

Synopsis: A Tibetan monastery buys a computer to help them calculating and printing  all possible names of God. They started this manual task some 300 years ago, estimated that it would take another 15,000 years to finish and now want to speed up things – the computer will finish the job within 100 days. Why?

“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!’

Review: With only 8 pages, this is a really short short story, leaving not much room for a tension arc, character development or similar narration elements.

The neutral characters in the story tell us that the story is more about the examination of social ideas. It lives from its core idea of combining computer science, linguistics, and religion and building the logic to its final, eschatological statement. Which is of course predictable: „Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.“

Initially, I thought to give the story some 3 stars, but then I found out that the story sticked with me: The story is fast paced and gives room for reader’s discussion. Lots of people were completely flashed, some even read it every month and get goosebumps from that last sentence. I’m not within that group but I liked the surprising combination of computer linguistics and religion instead of applying software to business. What stayed is the idea of hubris and faith.

The moral in the story might be „don’t knock other’s religion, they might be right“. Those Tibetian monks in general are not concerned with God, and tried to find counterproof for the existence of God. It stands in a long tradition of SF including religious speculations, e.g. James Blish’s „A Case of Conscience“, Silverberg’s anthology „The Day the Sun Stood Still“, or several stories of Ted Chiang, e.g. Hell is the Absence of God, or Tower of Babylon.

As a computer scientist, I loved several 50s nostalgic computer citations in it, like „Your Mark V Computer can carry out any routine mathematical operation up to ten digits. However, for our work we are interested in letters, not numbers. We wish you to modify the output circuits…“ or „The components are small enough to travel by air“. Nowadays, the calculation could be performed in a couple of seconds. Only the task of printing out all of the pages and binding them to a book would take longer, which is elaborated in an article. But the story is certainly not to be taken as Hard SF – the last sentence alone is somewhat problematically as it would need God to have extinguished the stars thousands of years before their light reached the Earth at that exact moment in time. That last sentence is to be taken poetically.

In summary, the story achieved a huge impact with only a few pages. That’s why I’d like to recommend it.

Meta: isfdb. This SF short story appeared 1953 in Star Science Fiction Stories. It was repreinted lots of times, got a retro Hugo, and was included in the The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology. It is available online.

 

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