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The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C.…

The Nine Billion Names of God (1967)

by Arthur C. Clarke

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This is a selection of some of Clarke's short stories. Most of the stories are quite short, only a few pages. I find it difficult to read short story collections straight through, so this took me a while.

I liked some of the stories a lot (e.g. "Superiority"), while others didn't age so well (e.g. the gender stereotypes in "Reluctant Orchid"). Many end with a clever twist (also making them stand better on their own than in a collection where there's a clever twist ending every 3 pages). ( )
  lavaturtle | Jan 30, 2017 |
A solid collection of hard sci fi stories with commentary by the author on some of them ( )
  TJCams | May 5, 2015 |
This is a collection of VERY short stories, some of which are only 2-3 pages. They run the gamut of end of the world to alien contact. The only short story I really liked was "Rescue Party" as it had a bit of meat on the bone, describing an alien consortium trying to save something of Earth before the Sun explodes. I won't spoil it by describing the story but it has a nice twist and is humourous at times too . "I Remember Babylon" was mildly interesting in that it postulated satellite communication and predicted pirate radio (TV actually). Most of the others though had little character development so they become quite forgettable to me. ( )
  Lynxear | Jul 8, 2012 |
Arthur C. Clarke

The Nine Billion Names of God

Signet/New American Library, Paperback, [1980].

12mo. [vi]+240 pp. Introduction by Arthur Clarke, August 1966 [vi].

First published thus, 1967.



The Nine Billion Names of God [1953]
I Remember Babylon [1960]
Trouble With Time [1960]
Rescue Party [1946]
The Curse [1946]
Summertime on Icarus [1960]
Dog Star [1962]
Hide and Seek [1949]
Out of the Sun [1958]
The Wall of Darkness [1949]
No Morning After [1954]
The Possessed [1953]
Death and the Senator [1961]
Who's There? [1958]
Before Eden [1961]
Superiority [1951]
A Walk in the Dark [1950]
The Call of the Stars [1957]
The Reluctant Orchid [1956]
Encounter in the Dawn [1953]
"If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . ." [1951]
Patent Pending [1954]
The Sentinel [1951]
Transience [1949]
The Star [1955]

*In square brackets: year of first publication, usually in a magazine. All stories previously published in the collections Expedition to Earth (1953), Reach for Tomorrow (1956), Tales from the White Hart (1957), The Other Side of the Sky (1958), and Tales of Ten Worlds (1962).


It is really quite a shame that this collection is not more easily available at more reasonable prices; indeed, the first edition by Harcourt, Brace and World is something of a collectors' item; but later paperbacks are still within the reach of normal people. For this is an excellent selection for neophytes and aficionados alike of 25 pieces not for nothing called ''The Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke'' on the very front cover. By the second half of the 1960s Arthur Clarke was heavily involved in the making of 2001 on several levels (screenplay, novel, movie) and he had all but stopped writing short stories, if not anything else. Later he was to publish only one collection of previously uncollected pieces more (The Wind from the Sun, 1972), but since he had already produced no fewer than six others, I guess the moment for ''The Very Best'' in a single book was ripe. No doubt Arthur's 50th birthday in 1967 was a fine additional stimulus.

Special, previously unpublished, bonuses in this volume include very short, but meaningful, introduction and beautifully concise prefatory notes to, alas, only few of the stories. Interestingly, every story is signed with month, year and location, apparently indication where and when it was written. The locations themselves make quite an itinerary – London, Miami, New York, Colombo – and may occasionally be the source of some tantalising speculations. How fascinating, for instance, that Clarke should have written at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the course of a few months during 1945, something as humorous as ''Rescue Party'' and as bleak as ''The Curse'' – no doubt the month August for the latter is significant as well. The introduction, despite its shortness, is a gem, too. After reminding us that he had been writing short stories for some thirty years (though the pieces collected here span just about half of that time, 1946-61), and that in addition to six collections these pieces had appeared in magazines as diverse as Galaxy and Playboy, Arthur finishes thus:

Every author must have his favourite stories, thought he would often be hard put to give reasons for his preferences. Sometimes these can be completely illogical – or at least un-literary. A story written at a time and place associated with pleasant memories may be more highly rated, in retrospect, than a much better tale provoked by unhappiness or penury – the two greatest sponsors of art.

Whether this selection is free from such bias, I have no idea; whatever the reasons may be, these are my favourites.

Now this in itself makes such a volume rather extraordinary, at least for Clarke aficionados. Just like the locations and the dates of writing, but on a much more speculative level, the author's preference for certain stories may lead to some charmingly irrelevant reflections, and even to certain re-evaluation. I, for one, have read with different eyes sketches like ''The Curse'' and ''Transience'' or stories like ''Superiority'' and ''Trouble with Time'' which I had, on previous reading and for different reasons, found somewhat unsatisfactory. Certainly the collection is not free from that ''bias'' Arthur mentions in his Introduction, but this is neither a bad thing nor a possible one to avoid. In fact, it does add to the charm of the book.

Clarke's pithy prefatory notes – only very few, unfortunately – often supply some absorbing details concerning the inspiration for some stories or the circumstances of their writing. Thus ''The Nine Billions Names of God'', whose fabulous fame is so out of proportion to its slender value, was written ''for want of anything better to do, during a rainy weekend'' in a New York hotel. ''I Remember Babylon'' and ''Before Eden'', Arthur frankly confesses, were written with purely didactic purpose as ''cautionary tales'', to warn us, respectively, about the dangerous power of using television for propaganda and about our carelessness that might destroy life on other worlds we have yet to explore in detail. In both cases the message, for which Arthur didn't use Western Union as advised, is pretty clear and obvious, yet it is so well integrated into the stories that it makes for a highly entertaining read – but not a little thought-provoking, too.

Another beautiful thing about this collection is that it does demonstrate Clarke's impressive versatility. Sometimes I find it a little difficult to believe that such deliciously flippant tales as ''The Reluctant Orchid'', ''Patent Pending (both "Made in the ''White Hart'') or ''No Morning After'' were actually written by the same man who produced such heartbreaking masterpieces as ''Dog Star'', ''If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth...'' and ''The Star''. Nor is the range of subjects less staggering: from the elusive, but strong, bond between human beings and their pets to the aftermath of nuclear holocaust to the shaking of religious belief by interstellar exploration.

I am quite astonished to see Arthur's style described as ''humourless and dry'', for even in his ''gimmick stories'', namely those based on some rather obscure scientific phenomenon, I at least do not find anything of the kind. In lesser hands ''Out of the Sun'' or ''Summertime on Icarus'' might have turned up as intolerable boredom akin to a bad textbook, but under Clarke's pen (or typewriter, to be exact) these emerge as superbly suspenseful tales, full of vivid characterisation and compelling twists in the plot. Nor is it true that most of these tales are ''gimmick stories''. Far from it. The poignant ''The Call of the Stars'' and the deeply affecting ''Death and the Senator'' are just two examples when the scientific component is perfectly secondary. Above all, these stories deal perceptively with the eternal subject of all great literature: human nature.

I am often considerably annoyed by the condescending claims of highbrow and snobbish folk that Arthur Clarke, of course, is not great writing. But what is great writing? If that means florid vocabulary, half-page long sentences, affected rhetoric, stylistic acrobatics and other similar niceties, then Arthur Clarke definitely is not great writing. But I don't see it that way. For my part, great writing is one that entertains and moves you, stimulates your imagination and enlarges your personality; one that changes you profoundly. Arthur scores considerable number of points on all fronts. Even though I don't mind telling you that I would make a somewhat different selection of "the best short stories of Arthur C. Clarke", The Nine Billion Names of God remains an impressive testimony what a truly great writer (the highbrows be blown!) can achieve with one of the genres closest to perfection. ( )
5 vote Waldstein | Aug 30, 2011 |
In the introduction to The Nine Billion Names of God, Clarke writes that the thread that ties this collection together is that it is comprised of his favorite stories from his repertoire. Interestingly, it turns out that Clarke's favorite stories also turn out to include pretty much all of his best and most famous stories that were published between 1953 and 1966, which makes this an excellent collection. Whether one is unfamiliar with Clarke and trying to get a high-quality sampling of his work, or a long-time fan who wants to read through some of Clarke's best stories, this is a great collection to pick up.

The highlights of the book are, unsurprisingly, among Clarke's best pieces: the title story The Nine Billion Names of God, Rescue Party, Hide and Seek, The Wall of Darkness, Superiority, "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . . ", and The Sentinel. (For those who do not know, the movie and book 2001: A Space Odyssey is an expanded treatment of The Sentinel. While these are the high points, pretty much every story in this volume is good - there is a reason that Clarke was considered one of the giants of the genre for the bulk of his career.

This is not to say that there are no missteps in the stories. Some of the story elements seem quaint now - the result of the stories having been written many decades ago. So, for example, the scene in The Sentinel in which the protagonist makes himself and his fellow lunar explorers breakfast by frying up some sausages seems, in retrospect, quite silly. The story Hide and Seek only works because the "seeker" doesn't have something as simple as a landing shuttle, which seems to me to be pretty weak engineering. And so on. Even still, most of the stories seem to have aged fairly well, with only a few elements here and there that have been invalidated by the passage of time.

The stories are mostly quite short, which should be easy enough to figure out when one realizes that twenty-five stories are packed into a volume that is a mere 240 pages long. Clarke's style is pretty straightforward and direct - each story had a main idea, and one or two central characters. Many of the stories, such as Hide and Seek or Summertime on Icarus, are what I call "engineering puzzle" stories in which the protagonist confronts a problem that threatens his life and uses basic science and engineering to solve it. Many others are "wonder" stories, such as Transience, The Nine Billion Names of God, or The Star, in which the reader is presented with the awesome majesty of the universe and invited to gaze in wonder. There are silly, humorous stories, such as Superiority and The Reluctant Orchid (although Superiority has a serious message hidden in its humor), and "shaggy god" stories such as Encounter at Dawn. And there are stories about both man's reach for greatness, such as The Call of the Stars, and man's foolish self-destructiveness, such as I Remember Babylon. In short, this collection is a huge grab bag that touches on almost every popular science fiction story type of the mid-Twentieth century.

Clarke is a practitioner and serial abuser of the "deep and meaningful last sentence" method of storytelling, as this device is used in several of the stories in this volume. To a certain extent, this probably stems from the era that the stories were written insofar as they first appeared in pulp magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, and this sort of "big reveal" moment was probably what the market demanded. Even still, the repeated used of this literary device gets a little wearying.

One story that I found particularly prescient was Death and the Senator. The science fiction of the story - the idea that an orbital hospital could be constructed and that patients would experience great benefits from being treated and recovering in zero-gravity conditions - appears to be somewhat optimistic. However, Clarke's narrative is dead-on when it comes to the short sightedness of politicians deciding whether or not to fund long-term scientific projects, and how this is likely to turn around and have substantial negative consequences as a result of our limited vision. Every time someone says "establishing a base on the moon will take a decade, so we can't start now", I think of this story and get a little bit angry.

Despite the various quibbles, the stories in the book are almost all good, with several rightly considered "great". The only stories I though were average at best were A Walk in the Dark, The Possessed, and Patent Pending and given that there are twenty-two other stories in the volume, all of superior quality, this is a minor point. Simply put, this is an excellent collection of stories from one of the top writers in the field of science fiction, and well worth reading for anyone who is a fan of the genre.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
2 vote StormRaven | May 12, 2010 |
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To "Mitty" (Captain E. B. Mitford)
who encouraged my initial scribblings
at Huish's Grammar School, 1930-36,
and became my first editor.
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Book description

The Nine Billion Names of God
I Remember Babylon
Trouble with Time
Rescue Party
The Curse
Summertime on Icarus
Dog Star
Hide and Seek
Out of the Sun
The Wall of Darkness
No Morning After
The Possessed
Death and the Senator
Who's There?
Before Eden
A Walk in the Dark
The Call of the Stars
The Reluctant Orchid
Encounter at Dawn
"If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth..."
Patent Pending
The Sentinel
The Star
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