≡ Menu

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (Ending)

“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 have been 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!”

“Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.”

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.

“That’s just what I said to Sam. And do yout [sic] know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, ‘It’s nothing as trivial as that.’”

George thought this over for a moment.

“That’s what I call taking the Wide View,” he said presently. “But what d’ya suppose we should do about it? I don’t see that it makes the slightest difference to us. After all, we already knew that they were crazy.

“Yes—but don’t you see what may happen? When the list’s complete and the Last Trump doesn’t blow—or whatever it is they expect—we may get the blame. It’s our machine they’ve been using. I don’t like the situation one little bit.”

“I see,” said George slowly. “You’ve got a point there. But this sort of thing’s happened before, you know. When I was a kid down in Louisiana we had a crackpot preacher who once said the world was going to end next Sunday. Hundreds of people believed him—even sold their homes. Yet when nothing happened, they didn’t turn nasty, as you’d expect. They just decided that he’d made a mistake in his calculations and went right on believing. I guess some of them still do.”

“Well, this isn’t Louisiana, in case you hadn’t noticed. There are just two of us and hundreds of these monks. I like them, and I’ll be sorry for old Sam when his lifework backfires on him. But all the same, I wish I was somewhere else.”

“I’ve been wishing that for weeks. But there’s nothing we can do until the contract’s finished and the transport arrives to fly us out.”

“Of course,” said Chuck thoughtfully, “we could always try a bit of sabotage.”

“Like hell we could! That would make things worse.”

“Not the way I meant. Look at it like this. The machine will finish its run four days from now, on the present twenty-hours-a-day basis. The transport calls in a week. OK—then all we need to do is to find something that needs replacing during one of the overhaul periods—something that will hold up the works for a couple of days. We’ll fix it, of course, but not too quickly. If we time matters properly, we can be down at the airfield when the last name pops out of the register. They won’t be able to catch us then.”

“I don’t like it,” said George. “It would be the first time I ever walked out on a job. Besides, it would make them suspicious. No, I’ll sit tight and take what comes.”

“I still don’t like it,” he said, seven days later, as the tough little mountain ponies carried them down the winding road. “And don’t you think I’m running away because I’m afraid. I’m just sorry for those poor old guys up there, and I don’t want to be around when they find out what suckers they’ve been. Wonder how Sam will take it?”

“It’s funny,” replied Chuck, “but when I said good-by I got the idea he knew we were walking out on him—and that he didn’t care because he knew the machine was running smoothly and that that job would soon be finished. After that—well, of course, for him there just isn’t any After That . . .”

George turned in his saddle and stared back up the mountain road. This was the last place from which one could get a clear view of the lamasery. The squat, angular buildings were silhouetted against the afterglow of the sunset: here and there, lights gleamed like portholes in the side of an ocean liner. Electric lights, of course, sharing the same circuit as the Mark V. How much longer would they share it? wondered George. Would the monks smash up the computer in their rage and disappointment? Or would they just sit down quietly and being their calculations all over again?

He knew exactly what was happening up on the mountain at this very moment. The high lama and his assistants would be sitting in their silk robes,


 inspecting the sheets as the junior monks carried them away from the typewriters and pasted them into the great volumes. No one would be saying anything. The only sound would be the incessant patter, the never-ending rainstorm of the keys hitting the paper, for the Marv [sic] V itself was utterly silent as it flashed through its thousands of calculations a second. Three months of this, thought George, was enough to start anyone climbing up the wall.

“There she is!” called Chuck, pointing down into the valley. “Ain’t she beautiful!”

She certainly was, thought George. The battered old DC-3 lay at the end of the runway like a tiny silver cross. In two hours she would be bearing them away to freedom and sanity. It was a thought worth savoring like a fine liqueur. George let it roll round his mind as the pony trudged patiently down the slope.

The swift night of the high Himalayas was now almost upon them. Fortunately, the road was very good, as roads went in that region, and they were both carrying torches. There was not the slightest danger, only a certain discomfort from the bitter cold. The sky overhead was perfectly clear, and ablaze with the familiar, friendly stars. At least there would be no risk, thought George, of the pilot being unable to take off because of weather conditions. That had been his only remaining worry.

He began to sing, but gave it up after a while. This vast arena of mountains, gleaming like whitely hooded ghosts on every side, did not encourage such ebullience. Presently George glanced at his watch.

“Should be there in an hour,” he called back over his shoulder to Chuck. Then he added, in an afterthought, “Wonder if the computer’s finished its run. It was due about now.”

Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky.

“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.

New York, 1952


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joe Krill January 28, 2022, 7:52 AM

    ALL. That is all you need to know.

  • bruce kendall January 28, 2022, 8:14 AM

    i was lucky enough to have Arther C Clark as one of my professors, hell of a ping pong player, never to be seen without a sarong either, amazing man!

    • gwbnyc January 28, 2022, 1:15 PM

      so- that gives us here two degrees of separation on Arthur Clarke.

  • BillH January 28, 2022, 9:07 AM

    Reminds me of some of the conversations we had at the Old Dutch Tavern around the 5ᵗʰ or 6ᵗʰ beer when I was a grad student in Columbus.

  • John G Condon January 28, 2022, 10:08 AM

    Use people as toilet paper. When done… flush!

    The God of the Woke Left.

  • LS January 28, 2022, 10:22 AM

    It’s an okay story, in my humble opinion, but not that compelling. But I’m curious, Gerard, what makes it compelling for you. This is not the first time you’ve put this story up, and I know you are seeing things in it that I don’t. So this is a genuine request for some of your insight.


    • John G Condon January 28, 2022, 3:16 PM

      Could be a Rorschach Test to ping the ideological/Moral/Spiritual location of the person who commented on it, LS, but that’s just a guess on my part.

      Even then, the ‘test’ can be falsified so determining the humans from the animals can difficult.

  • Roderick Reilly January 28, 2022, 10:47 AM

    Read this many years ago. Always stuck with me.

    • gwbnyc January 28, 2022, 11:28 AM

      It was the one I gave my mother to read so she’d get off my back about “those trashy science fiction magazines you read.”

  • gwbnyc January 28, 2022, 11:25 AM

    The head monk of a monastery wanted to establish another on a mountain a ways away. He assembled three prospects to lead the effort, one would be chosen. He placed a wooden bucket containing water between the four of them where they sat on the floor.

    He asked the first, the librarian monk, what he saw. He answered at length an interlaced description borrowing much from established lore and practice, history and meditations.

    The second, the manager monk, was asked what he saw. He sat awhile. Then, drawing on a classic poem, declared “The moon is not in the bucket.”

    The third, a scullery monk, was asked “What do you see?” He rose from the floor, extended his leg and tipped the bucket over with his foot, then left.

  • Skorpion January 28, 2022, 11:51 AM

    Right up there with Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” as one of my all-time favorite SF stories.

  • Doctor Jeyi January 28, 2022, 8:15 PM

    That’s the Tigers Nest monastery in Bhutan. Several days after we had gotten married (!) in Thimphu in July 1989, my new French wife, our best man Mister Kirbster, and I got within about a half mile of the site when the monsoon rains began in earnest and we hung out in a funky semi-enclosed tea shop just on the opposite side of the ravine which we’d have to cross to get onto the main trail up to the temple compound. After twenty cups of tea and three hours, we thought it would be too dark, too slippery and too dangerous to risk it, so we headed back to the big city. Not long afterwards, the temple was quasi-totally destroyed in a fire, but was since impeccably and faithfully reconstructed, as shown by the illustration. Yeah, we’re still married, and I spoke with the Kirbster on WhatsApp for a coupla hours just last week.

    • gwbnyc January 28, 2022, 10:47 PM

      their buildings typically slope downward as seen. I’ve read they are made of rammed earth and the material perhaps dictates the base being larger than the size it will finish. as always, check my math.

  • KCK January 29, 2022, 8:45 AM

    My wife’s been, but I never have been, to Tibet. I never got tired of the sight of what I call hanging cities, in Italy.
    Science Fiction: my brother would read it, and for some reason I went more for non-fiction and historical fiction, instead. I did like the Sci-Fi portions of CS Lewis’ books, and of course you don’t grow up watching TV in the Sixties without getting a huge dollop of Sci-Fi watching accomplished. But, FSR, the literary genre wasn’t my style.
    More is my misfortune. Before, I shunned Sci-Fi, and now I’m actually living it.
    The thought of the stars going out. Shuddddders.