Transwarp Tuesday! The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

The End is Nigh…


Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 story The Nine Billion Names of God is considered to be a classic. Although it appeared on the scene before either of the big sci-fi awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, it was awarded a retrospective Hugo in 2004. So it seems like a good choice for this week’s…


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Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke


Dr. Wagner was scarcely conscious of the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below. He was in a different world, a world of natural, not man-made, mountains. High up in their remote aeries these monks had been patiently at work, generation after generation, compiling their lists of meaningless words. Was there any limit to the follies of mankind? Still, he must give no hint of his inner thoughts. The customer was always right….

A computer company is approached by a Tibetan lama with a strange request. The monks want a computer that will enable them to print out all the possible permutations of God’s names. They have decided on an alphabet of nine characters and expected to spend fifteen thousand years identifying all nine billion possibilities manually, but with the advent of computers they expect that the work can now be done in 100 days. Though the head of the computer company thinks they’re crackpots, he takes their money and agrees.

early computer

As part of the deal, two technicians travel with the machine to Tibet to oversee the project. At first all goes well – the machine churns out lists of names and the monks rush to cut the pages up and paste each name individually in books. But a week before the project is due to be completed, the lama explains the purpose of it all to one of the technicians…

“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there 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!”

The technicians don’t believe this, of course, but they fear that when things don’t go as expected the monks may blame the computer – and them. So they decide to escape from the monastery before the project is over…


This is a very neat little take on the science v religion debate, or perhaps more logic v mysticism. It’s well written and amusing, with a nicely quirky ending, and I’m reasonably confident that the spiritual aspects are not meant to be taken too seriously. It’s interesting to see how basic computers were back in the ‘50s – not much more powerful than a pocket calculator really – and yet how they were considered such an amazing invention with the power to radically alter the course of history. If the story has a message, I’d say it’s more about this aspect – a humorous warning that we need to show caution in how we allow technology to be used. While it’s enjoyable and thought-provoking enough to have a bit of substance, I’m not convinced it’s one of the greatest stories I’ve read, and I suspect the retrospective Hugo it won was probably more of a recognition of Clarke’s overall reputation. However it is certainly interesting and fun, and will encourage me to read more of Arthur C Clarke’s work.

The story is available online if you’d like to read it. Click here!

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

59 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

  1. FictionFan – Arthur C. Clarke is of course one of the best-known of sci-fi authors, so I’m not at all surprised that you decided to include one of his stories. I may be wrong, but I think there are several sci-fi stories that take up this theme of, as you say, logic v mysticism. It’s a question we haven’t really been able to answer satisfactorily, which is probably why we still debate it. Glad you enjoyed this one.


    • Yes, I think it was a theme that several of them looked at back in the fifties and sixties – don’t know whether that’s still the case…though hopefully I’ll find out! Again, as with the Bradbury story, it’s hard to know whether the theme of this one seemed much more original to contemporaneous readers…


  2. Well, a quirky end sounds good. Do you mean you could download or print it from the internet?

    Imagine counting nine billion names…or pasting them in a book.

    (I think the lama should change his name, might get mistaken for a type of beast.)


    • You can just click on my link and it will take you straight to the story – if you like. It’s very short!

      I know – there’s all kinds of stuff on the internet from people who’ve tried to calculate how long it would take and how many books you would need – not to mention one guy who’s actually written a computer program to run all nine-billion permutations. Sci-fi geeks are brilliant fun!!

      (I thought of posting a pic of a llama – but was worried in case any visiting Tibetan monks didn’t find it funny…)


      • Should I read it? Does FEF recommend it–to the professor, that is?

        For sure! It all boggles my mind, though. Horribly boggles it.

        (I would have probably give in! I must confess, I thought we were talking about a llama at first.)


        • Hmm – I don’t think you’ll absolutely love it but I think you might enjoy it so yes, you should read it! And tell me what you think…

          Mine too, but it makes me laugh – I do love that kind of mad enthusiasm!

          (Haha! I always get the two confused – especially spelling. I always want to spell the Dalai as Llama – on the rare occasion his name comes up, that is…)


            • *taps foot impatiently* Well?

              Your sanity. Yes. Well. *rendered speechless*

              Is Rafa the Dalai Lama??? When did that happen? Why did nobody tell me??


            • Well, have you read it yet?? *has been tapping foot impatiently for so long now that her calf muscles have grown to Rafa-esque proportions*

              It’s a rare occurrence – the Professor is right to be proud!

              I see! Though one has to consider – should someone called Chicky-Woot-Woot be commenting on the strangeness of other people’s names? *innocent face*


            • Spit-tooey!! You could have read it in less time than it’s taken for you to whine about it!! *goes for physiotherapy to repair damage to foot muscles*

              Avidly watches.

              I know, but someone has to, and somehow it feels as if it’s my duty…


            • Well, it should be!! For too long, the privilege of making rude gestures has belonged to men! It is time for women around the world to rise up, take a stand and make themselves look as ugly and silly as men!!! This is what the feminists fought for, what the suffragettes died for!!! We demand our right to stick out our tongues at anyone we choose!!!

              Oh! I’m so sorry! Perhaps you’re right…


            • *laughing* If they had to die, I’m sure the whole operation would have folded long ago. BUT…men aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing either. Not gentlemanly.

              Have you ever seen the professor do such things? No! Then you can’t either! Then you’ll be a gentleman–I mean Lady!


            • Spit-tooey! And tchah!! The Professor is constantly sticking his tongue out at poor FF – and making rude noises…which he can probably sustian for a really long time given his circular breathing skills!!! Does this mean the Professor isn’t a gentleman? No wonder he wears baseball caps!!


            • *gasps* Cheeky Chicky! (Though of course these days the Professor is becoming a bit of an expert on ladies…) But if you won’t let me be a gnome, I’ll have to stay a lady which means you’ll have to be a gentleman and dance with me…


            • (I am? How? I need a detailed synopsis, please.) Oh no! That doesn’t follow. I must make you a lady, so you don’t make the same mistake I did. Not that I was ever going to be a lady. It’s better to be respectable. Hope that makes sense.


            • (Oh, don’t play the innocent with me, Mr Flirt!) *laughing lots and lots* Perfect sense – in a Professorial kind of way! But it’s a well-known fact that the only way to turn a gnome into a lady is to dance the cotillion with her (while apparently dancing the Charleston will turn a lady into a gnome…)


            • (*shock face* You impugn me honor, boy!) Rats! That’s too hard. Perhaps you’re better of as a gnome. Unless you’re a lady and don’t know it. Now I’m confused. Absolutely no Charlestons ever ever ever ever ever!


            • (Boy?? BOY!?! I’ve never been so insulted!! *snarls*) I totally agree. You are confused! *laughing* Are you sure? The Charleston is a particularly good dance for people with wobbly knees…


            • (Well…perhaps I can. This time. Maybe…)

              These knees of yours seem to be exceedingly changeable at present…I’m beginning to wonder if the Professorial mind has gone wobbly…


            • Look, possibly-Sir C-W-W! Let me clarify. I shall be the Queen and you will do as you’re told. OK? Or no knighthood for you.

              *wonders if Mic would like a knighthood*


    • Aha! Do I see a sign that I’m beginning to wear you down? I have a master-plan for one that I’m sure will appeal to you…it may be a few weeks before I can fit it in though… 😉


      • If I can be honest, without encouraging you in your devious ways, I didn’t realise that there was so much variety in the genre. Apart from with your weekly feature my reaction has always been to stop reading once the word sci-fi appeared in any description. So your educating me even if I don’t succumb 😉


        • 😀 That’s part of the problem with the ‘genre’ though – so much gets lumped into it, mostly fantasy and alternate worlds stuff, that it’s quite hard to find the ‘sci-fi’ – or at least what I think of as sci-fi. And sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference – half the discussions sci-fi fans have on the likes of Goodreads are about trying to decide which stories fit into what bits of the genre.


  3. Great review – and no spoiler! I read a lot of Clarke’s stuff in my early days, and remember this story quite clearly, which says something for its staying power, if nothing else.


    • Thanks! Again, as I was just remarking to Margot, the theme of this may have seemed much more original nearer the time it was written – that’s always a problem with classic sci-fi. But I enjoyed the style and if I get time would definitely read more of his stuff.


    • Terrifying, isn’t it? Can you imagine having been one of the builders? As Wordman says, it’s the Taktshang Monastery – nothing to do with this story really but sounds a bit like the monastery he describes.


      • Just been watching some Youtube videos of people who have visited the place and my God the trek looks treacherous. But what a view from the temple.


        • I doubt if I could even look at the view. I’m not so scared of heights so long as there’s a solid and preferably thick wall between me and the drop, so a castle or cathedral is usually OK. But stick me near a cliff edge and sheer terror sets in…


  4. Sadly, and i’m repeating myself here, but I haven’t read any Arthur C Clarke since the Eighties. He was a genius, an incredible man and a great writer. Love the picture of Tiger’s Nest but I am having feelings of Vertigo just looking at it. However, it would be a wonderful place to visit.


    • I’m not sure that I ever read any of his stuff, even back when I was reading sci-fi. But I’d like to, if I can ever find the time. Yep, the picture scares me stiff – can you imagine having been one of the builders? Horrifying!


          • Oh same here. Pedestrian bridges over roads are an intense circle of hell. Best done, no matter the width of the bridge, by going down on hands and knees and proceeding that way. It can get you some very strange looks if this happens in a city….the only other alternative is to approach a stranger and ask if they will hold your hand and take you across.

            When I’m elderly this should become easier as no doubt it will not be misinterpreted as some sort of sexual approach, an inappropriate request, a mugging overture, or evidence of frightening mental instability. Best of all is to see someone else looking anxious and sweaty, you can then approach them and say ‘do you suffer vertigo, so do I, shall we hold hands and talk each other across’

            I can’t do cliff top views any more unless I SIT (safely far back) Though I have been faced, many times, on long distance walks with those close to the edge paths which I whimperingly negotiate


  5. Mmm I enjoyed that, thanks for the link. Now the monastery looks beautiful, but imagining myself getting there made me feel distinctly queasy and nauseous. I got vertigo from the picture and am not sure i dare stand up. Best to crawl around on hands and knees, and not think about builders or rock erosion at all


    • It’s terrifying isn’t it? I couldn’t possibly go up there for the prverbial million pounds – and the idea of rock erosion just give me the shudders!

      The story’s quite fun though – so many of these old sci-fi classics are available online, not to mention all the passionate fans you fall over when you search for them…


  6. […] stumbled upon Dr. Dennis Snyder, a day or so after I read FictionFan’s Review on Arthur Clark’s The Nine Billion Names of God. Whilst Clark’s book didn’t appeal to me, the references made about Taktsang did. So, naturally […]


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