In the story The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke, why does it explain that

the stars slowly disappear from the sky?

If the obvious explanation is correct, then why is it science fiction? Isn't it a superstitious story? Or I have failed to understand the plot?

  • 4
    It's not science fiction, it's fantasy. Why do you ask? Did someone tell you it's a science fiction story? – user14111 Sep 16 '15 at 12:54
  • 4
    Even granting that it's science fiction, the question presumes that the "God" in the story couldn't be explained by science. Lot's of beings of that power are described in sci-fi (the Q from Star Trek, for example). – DavidS Sep 16 '15 at 13:16
  • 12
    The story has elements of both science fiction (an early example of automated lexical permutation) and eschatological fantasy. Of course superstition can play a role in both science fiction and fantasy. – Lexible Sep 16 '15 at 15:53
  • 14
    @user14111 When the computer is not being used for (A) states, (B) banks or financiers, (C) people working in computer science, or (D) large corporations, but is instead used for a religious sect? Yes, I really do. You seem to mistake "science fiction" for something like "writing about non-extant technology" which is a hamstrung definition. – Lexible Sep 16 '15 at 20:53
  • 8
    It's certainly "speculative fiction"; I would try and avoid the "genre wars" within SF ("this isn't science!" etc) and leave it at that. This short story is, in my opinion, not a story to be taken too seriously: it feels like something that came out of a whimsical idea rather than some great revelation or insight that the author had. – Max Williams Sep 17 '15 at 9:53

As it says in the story, it's the end of, well, everything. Period. In other words, the Tibetan monks' beliefs were correct, and theirs is the one true religion.

‘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 be 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 you 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.”’

Whether or not you consider this science fiction is up to you in the end. Personally, I take a broad and inclusive view on this kind of question. The idea of then-advanced computer technology being used to solve an ancient religious question, combined with the 'what-if' idea, "What if these guys are right?", certainly fits my definition of speculative fiction, but your mileage may vary.

| improve this answer | |
  • Are you absolutely certain that Everything ends at the conclusion of the story? How do you know Clarke isn't pulling your leg? The stars winking out could be due to a number of things - why should we suppose that a supreme being is destroying the Universe? – RobertF Jun 12 '17 at 21:07

The usual interpretation is that it was true after all. The sceptical computer operators never believed in God or that the universe would end when the book was finished, but the stars going out vindicates the monks. The moral of the story could be seen as "don't knock someone else's religion: you never know, it might be real after all".

Another interpretation I found here is as follows.

These are Tibetan Buddhist monks. Buddhism in general is not concerned with "God." Enlightenment is their goal and compassion (understanding the suffering of other beings) is a major way of achieving enlightenment. Since these monks are not concerned about "God," their work of trying to discover the name of "God" through the iteration of all the names is not for their benefit at all. Either “God” is confused about what its real name is, or this is a typically cruel trick of some authoritarian patriarchical deity. But for the monks, it’s a moot point.

When the atheist monks finished the book of names, they had achieved the goal, not actually of naming some deity which they do not even believe in, but of realizing that "God" is unnameable because, in fact, there is no "God."

When the stars "go out" at the end, it us not really the end of the universe (which would have really been overkill by a wrathful deity in wiping out the entire universe, instead of just Earth). Also it would have been difficult for this deity to coordinate the timing of the extinguishing of the stars since the ancient light streaming in is millions of light-years old and each star is more or less different in distance from Earth, and the exact time that the monks’ woulf finish was indeterminate.

I think this is the atheist Clarke using technology to debunk the notion of “God.” The light of the stars going out is a poetic, allegorical kind of extinguishing. What is going out is the necessity for imagining that God is necessary at all.

Basically, it's one of those thought-provoking stories whose point is not entirely clear and may be left, at least to some extent, up to the interpretation of the individual reader. I don't know if Clarke himself ever said anything as to how he expected this story to be interpreted.

| improve this answer | |
  • 7
    Wow, that alternative interpretation is... far fetched... it would be difficult for a deity? Seriously? Oh well. – David Mulder Sep 18 '15 at 11:35
  • 4
    Hmm, this sounds like an atheist who is so offended by the idea of God that he can't even accept a FICTION story about God being real. I don't believe that vampires are real, but I don't search for alternative interpretations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that explain away the vampires. Surely no one supposes that Arthur Clarke really believed that God has 9 billion names and that once they are all catalogued the universe will cease to exist? The story was deliberately off the wall. – Jay Feb 10 '16 at 6:38
  • 2
    Yeah, that’s a pretty silly interpretation. Perhaps the stars went out because God simply got rid of the stars and their light at the same time. And what’s this? “…a typically cruel trick of some authoritarian patriarchal deity” ? Some serious editorializing there. ;) It’s not only authoritarian deities who play cruel tricks (Loki, Anansi) nor patriarchal deities who are cruel (even if you accept any deity in a patriarchal society as patriarchal, e.g. Hera, Artemis etc. were pretty cruel). Capriciousness is almost the default mode of deities everywhere. Even the pagan Lady isn’t always nice. – Adamant Jun 12 '17 at 4:56
  • 1
    Anyway, if it’s silly to suggest that Buddhist monks have an Abrahamic conception of God, it’s equally silly to suggest that they are atheist. Buddhism is a religion (as practiced by many people). Buddhist monks often believe in bodhisattvas, celestial Buddhas, and Dharma protectors. While it might be inaccurate to call these supernatural entities God, they’re enlightened entities of supernatural power. Some Buddhists are atheists, but to equate (Tibetan) Buddhism with atheism makes about as much sense as equating Judaism with Satanism, or for that matter Satanism with Christianity. – Adamant Jun 12 '17 at 5:05

The Nine Billion Names of God is basically a horror story. The purpose of the ending is to surprise and unsettle the reader, rather than to indicate some underlying truth or convey some significant message. In this way it's a lot like a "ghost story" or urban legend. It's intended to induce a thrill of fear and surprise at the startling revelation that what we expect and believe to be true and what is actually true are very different things. Another example of a Clarke horror story is A Walk In The Dark, though in that case the horror is more visceral.

What is interesting is that the story never says why the stars are going out, just that they are. We're left to draw our own post hoc ergo propter hoc conclusion, but it's equally possible that the monks' project was actually an elaborate means of identifying when the end of the universe would occur. Or that it's a more localized phenomenon, such as an enveloping cloud of some sort which is blotting out the stars.

If the stars really are disappearing, then it's a highly geocentric event, because this implies that stars all over the galaxy start disappearing at a range of different times which just happen to result in their light ceasing to reach us on this particular evening.

Clarke knew better than this of course, but the ambiguity just adds to the thrill of uncertainty.

| improve this answer | |
  • 12
    If God wants to snuff out a star starting with the photons closest to earth and then working backwards, I rekon he can. – jmoreno Sep 17 '15 at 3:10
  • 4
    Except the whole point of the story was that God brings the universe to an end because a group of monks ON EARTH have satisfied the purpose for which he created the universe. So it was all about a 100% geocentric event. – Jay Sep 17 '15 at 5:11
  • 5
    No, it's not a horror story. It lacks the "mood" or "atmosphere" of horror. That something awful happens at the end is not enough to make it a horror story. – user14111 Sep 17 '15 at 10:30
  • 1
    Besides, who says a quiet shutdown of the universe is horrible? Might it not be LESS horrible than letting all the wars and hatred continue? – JRE Sep 17 '15 at 12:57
  • @user14111, I simply disagree. I definitely do feel that this story has an atmosphere of horror. A seemingly innocuous scenario which nevertheless conveys a subtle sense of dread, followed by a revelation which places the reader in a very uncomfortable frame of mind, contemplating the imminent complete extermination of everything. – barbecue Sep 18 '15 at 1:13

Is your question about the nature of the story, or the nature of science fiction?

Lots of stories that speculate about the nature of God and questions of the supernatural are classed as "science fiction". Larry Niven's "Inferno", James Blish's "A Case of Conscience", Silverberg's anthology "The Day the Sun Stood Still", several Ray Bradbury stories whose titles escape me at the moment, etc. Many more science fiction stories include religious or theological speculation as elements.

Whether such stories are rightly called science fiction is a debate about definitions that is not possible to resolve definitively. It's not like a question about physics where we could perform an experiment to prove it true or false. Ultimately it's a question of opinion: What SHOULD be included under this heading?

Personally my intuitive feel is that speculations about theology are the same "sort of thing" as speculations about physics and astronomy. People who muse about "what would it be like if we met intelligent aliens" often have similar musings about "what would it be like if people had absolute proof that God exists". Even if you're an atheist and think talk of God is pure superstition, still, I sincerely doubt that psychic phenomenon like mind reading or telekinesis are real, but I nevertheless can enjoy stories based on the premise that they are. (And such stories are often called science fiction.) For that matter, it would seem from what we know about physics that faster-than-light travel is impossible, and yet this idea is fundamental to a large percentage of what is called science fiction.

| improve this answer | |

It can be “interpreted” as Hard SF, by a more modern audience.

The universe of the characters is a simulation. The careful rules of creating a long text string is the quit command or back-door access code. It became mystified over time but the carefulness of the religious order managed to preserve the instructions correctly.

The key is designed to be operable once the occupents have some understanding of information processing, so they can understand the nature of the revalations.

Compare with Crystal Nights by Greg Egan, which could be the same story told from the point of view of the outer universe running the simulation.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    If that';s a "hard SF" explanation, then what's an example of a story that can not be interpreted as hard SF? Surely Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland could just as well be interpreted as computer simulations? – user14111 Sep 17 '15 at 10:23
  • I was originally writing a tounge-in-cheek comment until I noticed the parallel with newer stories with this explicit plot. A different answer touches on the more general speculative fiction: fantasy is really science fiction if it follows its internal rules carefully? I've read a novel with Jabberwocks that started out seeming fantasy but turned out to be SF through "the world is a stage" trope. HP and Alice both move from the normal world to the different-rules world, so such ideas could be explored. But... – JDługosz Sep 17 '15 at 12:40
  • The kind of story telling, not the nature of the fictional changes to the universe, is more definitive as to whether a story is Science Fiction or Fantasy. The story under discussion doesn't involve fictional-rules-world until the very end, and the characters are engineers not wizards, and the association with the author's normal material makes you think it must be science fiction when you start and really at any time up to the end. – JDługosz Sep 17 '15 at 12:44
  • I think this idea can be explored more on Worldbuilding SE and blog. – JDługosz Sep 17 '15 at 12:46
  • Umm, you certainly could write such a story, but none of that is in the story under discussion. – Jay Sep 17 '15 at 13:32

I have always taken Clarke's short story "Nine Billion Names of God", and its ending (the stars disappearing) at face value: The story's characters set up the plot that computer scientists are contracted to run a program for monks that wish to "speed up" their centuries old calling to unravel the core "inner mystery" of their faith. And the ending shows that the skeptical scientists were wrong, and that the men of faith were correct in their beliefs, hence the end of the story has god "winding up the universe". I don't believe Clarke was saying that religious beliefs will trump science, I think the 'moral' of the story is twofold: a) science & religion are not a good mix (one used by the other will lead to unintended results) & b) be careful what you wish for, as you may just get what you want.

| improve this answer | |

Depending on how complex the names are (think about hacking passwords by randomized combinations), this task might take so long that the heat death at the Universe, when all the stars have gone out, would be imminent.

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    Nice thought, but it's explicitly said in the story that it only takes the computer a few days: "The machine will finish its run four days from now, on the present twenty-hours-a-day basis." – Jason Baker Sep 17 '15 at 11:08
  • Thanks Jason - that kind of optimism abut the power of computers seemed to be fairly common in that era. I suppose it was similar to the extrapolation from commercial air flights to commercial interstellar travel within an unspecified few decades or centuries. – Peter Apps Sep 17 '15 at 11:12
  • 5
    Read it again. It explicitly says they estimate 100 days for the job. The four days comment is on towards the end of the run when it is nearly complete. As for 9 billion names in 100 days, that's about 22000 pages per day. So, if you assume 20 pages per minute you could do it. Provided nothing breaks down. But, of course, 100 days isn't a real deadline. Anything better than 15000 years will still get the job done ahead of schedule. :) – JRE Sep 17 '15 at 12:55
  • 1
    The 9 billion names are derived according to a set of rules from a special alphabet. It is basically a combinatorics problem, not some sort of decryption process. “I see. You’ve been starting at AAAAAAA... and working up to ZZZZZZZZ....” “Exactly — though we use a special alphabet of our own." – barbecue Sep 19 '15 at 1:05

Arthur C. Clarke left the conclusion of The Nine Billion Names of God open-ended. We don't know what's happening. One interpretation is that the Universe is ending.

There's a complication with this interpretation as mentioned in the Wikipedia article:

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.

There could also be a more mundane explanation which is more in keeping with Clarke's critical views of religion - some unpredicted and sudden weather has blown in and clouds are obscuring the stars.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    If God shut down the physics underlying photons and time itself, there'd be no reason why the shutdown couldn't be relatively immediate. Then the question would be why it wouldn't be immediately immediate. – RoboKaren Jun 12 '17 at 4:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.