|"The Nine Billion Names of God"|
|Author||Arthur C. Clarke|
|Published in||Star Science Fiction Stories No. 1|
|Media type||Print, e-book, audiobook|
"The Nine Billion Names of God" is a 1953 science fiction short story by British writer Arthur C. Clarke. The story was among the stories selected in 1970 by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the best science fiction short stories published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. It was reprinted in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964.
In a Tibetan lamasery, the monks seek to list all of the names of God. They believe the Universe was created for this purpose, and that once this naming is completed, God will bring the Universe to an end. Three centuries ago, the monks created an alphabet in which they calculated they could encode all the possible names of God, numbering about 9,000,000,000 ("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 15,000 years; the monks wish to use modern technology to finish this task more quickly.
They rent a computer capable of printing all the possible permutations, and hire two Westerners 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. Under a clear 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. Then they notice that "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."
In 2004, "The Nine Billion Names of God" won the retrospective Hugo Award for Best Short Story for the year 1954. Kirkus Reviews called it "quietly remarkable" and The Guardian considered it to be a "wonderful apocalyptic rib-tickler". Stating that the story "introduced many Western readers to an intriguing speculation in Oriental religions", Carl Sagan in 1978 listed "The Nine Billion Names of God" as among the "rare few science‐fiction [stories that] combine a standard science‐fiction theme with a deep human sensitivity". In 1986 it was included in the anthology Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 15 as one of the best science fiction short stories of 1953.
Gary K. Wolfe noted that the story is "patently at odds with Clarke's scientific rationalism". Paul J. Nahin has pointed out that, due to the delay imposed by the speed of light, an omniscient God would have had to destroy all the stars in the universe years earlier so that their "synchronized vanishing" would be visible at exactly the time that the monks completed their task.
In 2003, Clarke reported having been told that the Dalai Lama had found the story "very amusing".
Satyajit Ray, the Bengali movie pioneer, translated the story into the Bengali language.
In 2018, the story was adapted into a 2018 short film by Dominique Filhol. Seven years before it had already been adapted (more loosely) into a Portuguese short film (under the title Scr1ptum) by Swiss director Matthias Fritsche.