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In "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?

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    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
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    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
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    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
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    @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
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    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
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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.

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    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
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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.

Further thought years later

I've seen a number of atheists try to come up with theories to explain away the ending, i.e. to say that the ending really is NOT that God brings the universe to an end. But surely the plain reading of the story is exactly that: the monks have fulfilled God's purpose in creating the universe and so God ends it as now complete. If this ending doesn't fit with your beliefs about religion ... so what? When I read a vampire story, I don't try to reinterpret the story to explain away the vampires because I don't believe that vampires really exist. It's a fiction story. I sincerely doubt that Mr Clarke thought the universe was really likely to end this way. I don't know if Mr Clarke even believed in God. It doesn't matter. He was trying to write an entertaining story.

If the ending of the story is inconsistent with your view of reality, it doesn't matter, because no one is claiming that it is anything other than a fiction story. I can't imagine that someone would point to this story as somehow "proving" that there really is a God.

If a story conflicts with your world view, you might reasonably say, "That could never happen of course, but wow, it made a cool story." Or you might say, "That could never happen, and the story was just so unbelievable that I couldn't enjoy it." In some cases you might even say, "Oh brother, the author is trying to push this controversial religious/political/social/whatever idea. Sorry, it just doesn't work for me." But it is just, well, silly, to try to "reinterpret" a story that clearly and obviously means X to force it to mean Y because you don't agree with X.

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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.

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    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
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    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
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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.

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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    @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
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It is science-fiction, because it turns theology into an experimental science. Religion comes up with a hypothesis that can be tested, it is tested, and it turns out to be correct. That is the essence of the scientific method.

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I find it pretty obvious that Arthur Clarke intended the end of the story to be understood at face value – the monks were right, and whatever is to happen upon all of God’s names having been listed, is about to happen.

I am not at all convinced by interpretations that point out that the ending doesn’t add up if interpreted within a frame of conventional physics.

One thing that I haven’t seen anyone point out is that the story also leaves completely open exactly what is supposed to happen upon the achievement of mankind’s purpose. It does make very clear that the monks have no expectations of anyone committing suicide, and they dismiss the notion of the world simply “ending” as childishly inane.

So what is going to happen? Who knows. Maybe creation transitions to some completely different state of existing? Maybe the “end of the world” is not in fact anything negative at all – maybe that is simply the fearful interpretation of the narrow-minded engineers. Indeed it seems to me that the story goes out of its way to lay bare the engineers’ lazy, prejudiced way of approaching the monks’ ideas.

More to the point of what the story leaves open: is this transition the doing of God in a theistic sense? Is God merely to be understood as the universe as a whole? (Or all of existence, or some such notion.) As I read the story, it says that the monks were right about the possibility of triggering this transition; but it offers no claim as to whether they have the right notion as to why this transition can be triggered.

Some other answers here claim this is a horror story. I think that though wrong, this idea has some truth to it – only that Arthur Clarke was aiming to evoke not horror but awe. Most certainly not the religious kind, though, but an unsettled kind. We don’t know what is about to happen. All we know is it will be all-encompassing, in the most literal sense of the word.


Is this sci-fi? Well, I don’t know – is 2001: A Space Odyssey sci-fi? It seems to me that 2001 is the same kind of story: one that ends with the suggestion of a transition awaiting mankind that we are not currently equipped to grasp. 2001 even has a clearer element that could be described as supernatural. I wouldn’t have thought to class 2001 as anything but sci-fi – and neither do I think of The Nine Billion Names of God as anything else.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F! You could improve your answer by making it less conversational; it would stand better on its own if you focused more on a single response to the question rather than devoting paragraphs to responses to other answers. There's a good answer here, you've obviously put thought into it, but it could stand some tightening up. :) – DavidW Aug 20 '20 at 22:29
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I have always taken Clarke's short story "The 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:

  • science and religion are not a good mix (one used by the other will lead to unintended results)
  • be careful what you wish for, as you may just get what you want.
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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.

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    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

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