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BOOK REVIEW – ARTHUR C. CLARK – THE NINE BILLION NAMES OF GOD. 1953 Various SF anthologies and collections of Clarke’s work.

 

A classic and very short science fiction fable by the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story is simplicity itself. A group of nihilistic Buddhist monks in a remote monastery believe that a complete collection and recitation of all the existing names of God will signal God to end the Universe. The monks have worked on the project for generations but now they have bought a computer to speed things up. A couple of sceptical engineers are hired to install the computer in the monastery, working for three months to set up the apparatus in an ancient temple not designed for such technology.

 

Seeing that the computer is assimilating the data extremely quickly, the Westernised engineers decide to leave before the monks blame them when the results produced achieve nothing. As the engineers leave as night falls, the stars in the sky are visibly going out, one by one.

 

The story can be read as an amusing joke, or as a serious and disturbing philosophical premise. The computer, barely having had time to be plugged in and switched on, not only grasps the vast mathematical sums involved, but also solves instantly the metaphysical and scientific questions of existence (of man and god alike). The Universe might as well cease to exist as the monks and scientists have nothing left to do.  For Clarke what we know and understand becomes redundant and has been finished. It is what we still want and need that drives human progress.  Having a computer that can deal with the mysteries and enigmas of life extinguishes human wonder and progress. That seems to be the message of the Nine Billion Names. The story is one of the Great Aesopian parables of the modern age.

 

Arthur Chappell

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