The Nine Billion Names of God

The Nine Billion Names of God

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"The Nine Billion Names of God" is a 1953 science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, CBE, FRAS was a British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist, famous for his short stories and novels, among them 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as a host and commentator in the British television series Mysterious World. For many years, Robert A. Heinlein,...

. The story was the winner (in 2004) of the retrospective Hugo Award for Best Short Story
Hugo Award for Best Short Story
The Hugo Awards are given every year by the World Science Fiction Society for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year. The award is named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, and was once officially...

 for the year 1954.

Plot summary

This short story tells of a Tibet
Tibet is a plateau region in Asia, north-east of the Himalayas. It is the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people as well as some other ethnic groups such as Monpas, Qiang, and Lhobas, and is now also inhabited by considerable numbers of Han and Hui people...

an lamasery whose monk
A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose...

s seek to list all of the names of God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

, since they believe the Universe was created in order to note all the names of God and once this naming is completed, God will bring the Universe to an end. Three centuries ago, the monks created an alphabet
An alphabet is a standard set of letters—basic written symbols or graphemes—each of which represents a phoneme in a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic...

 in which they calculated they could encode all the possible names of God, numbering about nine billion and each having no more than nine characters. Writing the names out by hand, as they had been doing, even after eliminating various nonsense combinations, would take another fifteen thousand years; the monks wish to use modern technology in order to finish this task more quickly.

They rent a computer
A computer is a programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations. The particular sequence of operations can be changed readily, allowing the computer to solve more than one kind of problem...

 capable of printing all the possible permutations, and they hire two Westerners
Western world
The Western world, also known as the West and the Occident , is a term referring to the countries of Western Europe , the countries of the Americas, as well all countries of Northern and Central Europe, Australia and New Zealand...

 to install and program the machine. The computer operators are skeptical but play along. After three months, as the job nears completion, they fear that the monks will blame the computer, and by extension its operators, when nothing happens. The Westerners delay the operation of the computer so that it will complete its final print run just after their scheduled departure. After their successful departure on ponies, they pause on the mountain path on their way back to the airfield, where a plane is waiting to take them back to civilization
Civilization is a sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally...

. Under a clear starlit night sky they estimate that it must be just about the time that the monks are pasting the final printed names into their holy books. They notice that "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."

Publication history

  • 1953 - in Star Science Fiction Stories
  • 1958 - in The Other Side of the Sky
    The Other Side of the Sky
    For the Memoir by Farah Ahmedi, See The Other Side of the Sky: A MemoirThe Other Side of the Sky is a collection of short stories by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke originally published in 1958...

  • 1967 - in The Nine Billion Names of God (collection)
    The Nine Billion Names of God (collection)
    The Nine Billion Names of God is a collection of science fiction short stories by Arthur C. Clarke.-Contents:This collection includes:* "The Nine Billion Names of God"* "I Remember Babylon"* "Trouble with Time"* "Rescue Party"* "The Curse"...

    • Reprint: Amereon, Ltd., 1996. ISBN 0-8488-2181-5

A cassette tape was released of Clarke himself reading the story.
It may be the one released in 1989.
  1. ISBN 0945353448
  2. ISBN 978-0945353447

See also

  • Names of God
    Names of God
    Names of God, or Holy Names, describe a form of addressing God present in liturgy or prayer of various world religions. Prayer involving the Holy Name or the Name of God has become established as common spiritual practice in both Western and Eastern spiritual practices...

  • Towers of Hanoi, a puzzle that mentions a similar story
  • "The Library of Babel
    The Library of Babel
    "The Library of Babel" is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges , conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format....

    ", a short story which also deals with collecting all the possible permutations of a character string

External links