The Nine Billion Names of God

“The Nine Billion Names of God” is a famous short story by Arthur C. Clarke, written in the early ‘50s. Even if you have never read it, or never heard the story’s name, you might well know the way it ends:

“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

I certainly knew the ending; my Dad had told me about this story years past, and had just read an (as-yet-unpublished) short story that ended as a parody of this recently. So I found a copy at my local library and read it.

Highly recommended.

This particular anthology also included a dozen-odd of Clarke’s favorite short stories written up ‘til the mid-1960s, most also introduced in his own words. I read most all of them too; the parts that stand out the most in my memory, some time later, are:

I forgot how much I enjoyed reading collections of short stories organized by the time they were written; they feel more cohesive to me that way, and provide a more focused view of how we thought in the past.

Although many specific technical elements, like anticipating computers using punch cards through the 2050s, are noticeably dated, the plot of the stories don’t depend on the dated elements; they have aged remarkably well. The extra thirty years since Before the Golden Age, another collection I read and enjoyed, makes a big difference.

Clarke seems to hope we’d have people walking on asteroids, and walking on Mars by now, and we don’t. More broadly, he expresses profound optimism about human ability; “Rescue Party” envisions humans evacuating every soul on Earth into deep space on short notice, and not needing the rescue party of aliens that are the namesake of the story. This stands in stark contrast to how poorly contemporary writers imagine an attempt to do this working out, as Neal Stephenson does in Seveneves.

Clarke introduced two of his stories – “I Remember Babylon,” about a nascent revolution that will spread through communications satellites; and “Before Eden,” about sterilizing spacecraft, as having been written to inspire real action and having succeeded at the same. It’s tough to recall examples from my own life of being inspired to actually build something by science fiction1.

Likewise, he introduces two stories – “I Remember Babylon” and “Superiority” – as being required reading at organizations in their fields: the former at COMSAT, which actually launched the first communication satellites; and the latter at MIT in its engineering program. It’s similarly tough to recall being expected to read fiction of any genre outside of literature class.

Reading through the stories gave a sense of how much more hopeful people were about technology just before the end of the last golden age. Some of those hopes were misplaced in retrospect, but even assuming that we haven’t fallen into a corrsponding dark age we probably have overcorrected away from basic research and development. The biggest new technology I can think of that was developed after then, and was not anticipated, is probably Google search2; and the first version was still simple enough to build in a garage.

This is a strong contrast to the great new technologies of these stories’ time, like jet turbine engines, which take teams of people to build even in mature, simplified forms. It’s enough to make you wonder what important efforts we’re forgetting to try today – both obviously “big” projects like nuclear fusion reactors for energy, or landing men and women on Mars – and smaller ones as well.

  1. Or working on a team that was. [return]
  2. I work there, on Google Fiber. [return]