Friday, April 6, 2007

"The Nine Billion Names of God" (short story): Amusing computer specifications

A second rate doomsday story.

Full text of this story is available online (link via Best Science Fiction Stories), as also is an MP3 version (link via SF Signal & Free SF Reader). I haven't seen either of online versions, but quick skimming of text version suggests it's the story I read.

Story summary (spoiler).
Some monks in a monastery in Tibet have been researching the real names of God for 3 centuries - apparently, the familiar names of god are not good enough.

They know the written real names of god will be exactly 9 letters long - letters drawn from their special alphabet. And no more than 3 consecutive occurrences of the same letter are permitted.

Problem is to write down all permutations of characters meeting these criteria. When a correct name is spelled, the universe we know will lose meaning.

Monks have been doing this permutation writing for 3 centuries. Now they think the computers can speed the job up - from several more centuries to a few months.

A computer that sounds like a mainframe is brought, along with 2 programmers for 3 months. These permutations are printed & painstakingly filed on paper.

Programmers were brought on-site without telling them why the enumerations are being printed. One the them learns the purpose, & is worried monks will blame them when the last permutation is printed & world keep on whirring the way it always has had. They invent a way to delay the project completion - so they will be on their way home when last permutation is printed.

While programmers are on their way back, the machine prints last permutation. When programmers look up the sky, they find the stars are rapidly vanishing.

There is one silly point, & many amusing ones. Silly is - what are the odds that target name is the last one printed!

Amusing ones relate to description of computer & programming. They tell the age of the story - it is from 50s; of course, Clarke must have been quite up to date when he wrote the story. Here are some quotes I especially liked:

  • "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 ..."
  • "A rather more interesting problem is that of devising suitable circuits to eliminate ridiculous combinations. For example, no letter must occur more than three times in succession."
  • "The components" of computer "are small enough to travel by air".
See also.
  1. An in-passing inconsequential remark referring to this story is found in Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", & in a misquoted form in Eric Frank Russell's hilarious "Next of Kin".
  2. All stories with religion as a theme.

Collected in.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "Of Time and Stars"
  3. "More Than One Universe"
  4. Robert Silverberg (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964".

External links.

  1. Since this is amongst the most collected stories of Clarke, opinions on it are bound to differ. My friend Rusty has a more positive review of this story.
Fact sheet.
The Nine Billion Names of God, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Rating: C
Listed in Contento's Top Ten Most Reprinted Stories.


JL said...


I believe that the nine billionth permutation was not the target in itself. It was the discovery of all the possible permutations of the name of god that was the ultimate target.

Tinkoo said...

You are nearly right, JL.

Here is a quote from the story: "they believe that when they have listed all His names - and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them".

The total number of permutations to be enumerated is far more. Among the enumerations will be these nine billion. Still leaves me feeling if 9 billionth name will be the last of the many more permutations enumerated?

Thanks for comment though.

Mukund said...

Well since there are conditions on the way in which those names may be arrived at, I guess the computer could have calculated beforehand if there would be more permutations than nine billion. Since there is no such statement as the story progresses, I guess nine billion is taken as 'confirmed' as the number of the possible permutations within the set of those conditions.

DGV said...

Can anyone tel me wat "Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out" means ...?

Unknown said...

I suggest another reading of this great classic story.

These are Tibetan Buddhist monks. Buddhism in general is not concerned with "God." Enlightenment is their goal and compassion (understanding the suffering of other beings) is a major way of achieving enlightenment. Since these monks are not concerned about "God," their work of trying to discover the name of "God" through the iteration of all the names is not for their benefit at all. Either “God” is confused about what its real name is, or this is a typically cruel trick of some authoritarian patriarchical deity. But for the monks, it’s a moot point.

When the atheist monks finished the book of names, they had achieved the goal, not actually of naming some deity which they do not even believe in, but of realizing that "God" is unnameable because, in fact, there is no "God."

When the stars "go out" at the end, it us not really the end of the universe (which would have really been overkill by a wrathful deity in wiping out the entire universe, instead of just Earth). Also it would have been difficult for this deity to coordinate the timing of the extinguishing of the stars since the ancient light streaming in is millions of light-years old and each star is more or less different in distance from Earth, and the exact time that the monks’ woulf finish was indeterminate.

I think this is the atheist Clarke using technology to debunk the notion of “God.” The light of the stars going out is a poetic, allegorical kind of extinguishing. What is going out is the necessity for imagining that God is necessary at all.

Stephen said...

My name did not show up on this post.

Anonymous said...

I am certain that even though Clarke like the Great Isaac, two of the primary deities in my Pantheon of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov were athiests, Clarke was not thumbing his nose at God.

Clarke was engaging a mystical streak that he often used in all of his work. Childhoods End was a way to reach a spiritual theme. NBNG is the same. If you believe that Man can be perfected then what happens when that work is completed. If you believe that everything in the Universe proceeds to entropy then maybe when Entropy is at maximum when finally know God or at least all of his names.

Anonymous said...