Book Review: “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke. (1966)

“The Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke”

Image result for nine billion names of god clarkeWhile sci-fi isn’t my norm (especially sci-fi written before man ever landed on the moon), there’s just something about the yarns of Arthur C. Clarke, the “colossus of science fiction” (319), that appeal to the imagination. This collection of short stories constitute his own personal favorites out of the hundreds he’d published by then, and it came to me at a time when the vistas of space were regularly on mind.

I’ll jot down a few notes about each of the twenty-five stories in this volume, but I must highlight two as special favorites. First, “I Remember Babylon” (#2 in this volume) is perhaps the most prophetic supposition of a coming moral collapse at the hands of entertainment as I’ve ever seen. Second, “The Wall of Darkness” (#10 in this volume) was so engaging that I would very much like to enjoy it again in novel form or, if it’s ever been attempted, as a film. Now, notes about each story in order.

01—”The Nine Billion Names of God” – This tale describes a mishmash of religious views researched and encouraged by Tibetan Buddhist monks, and it ends O.Henry style. Praise God, the Almighty is not as silly and simplistic as described here! And yet, praise God too that his name is so simple: I AM.

02—”I Remember Babylon” – This story is quite nearly a sermon, albeit by Arthur C. Clarke, and is one of the most disturbingly prophetic stories I’ve ever read. Supposedly in 1945 (the story was copyrighted in 1960), Clarke introduced the world to a future of unqualified lasciviousness with pornography for the taking through the shockingly simple means of satellite television (not quite the internet, but virtually its equal in effect). “For the first time in history, censorship’s become utterly impossible. There’s simply no way of enforcing it. The customer can get what he wants, right in his own home. Lock the door, switch on the TV set. Friends and family will never know.” (21) But it’s not just sex that people will be after; it’s violence and gore, gossip and propaganda, everything that the heart desires but the public frowns upon. “People enjoy being brainwashed, if you set about it the right way,” (23) says one character. “History is on our side. We’ll be using America’s own decadence as a weapon against her, and it’s a weapon against which there is no defense.” (24) Due to its shockingly accurate assessment of what America could become once private sins could be commercialized and simplified, I immediately shared this story with some close friends as a warning against something that’s become so numbingly normal to us.

03—”Trouble with Time” – It’s a good thing Clarke’s not a mystery writer, because this little story wouldn’t have made it into a sci-fi version of 2 Minute Mysteries.

04—”Rescue Party” – A very full tale that details the destruction of planet earth through the eyes of a Good Samaritan alien federation, though it also speaks of mankind’s ruthless ingenuity.

05—”The Curse” – It probably would be more meaningful to someone with a better taste for poetry, which I sadly do not have.

06—”Summertime on Icarus” – Suspenseful and believable, this tale is less like Sci-fi and more like the films Gravity or The Martian. A delightful story! I’m far more drawn to those space stories that lack alien life.

07—”Dog Star” – This is a story for dog lovers, certainly (which I’m not all that much), and one that made me glad I’d recently finished reading A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester.

08—”Hide and Seek” – A brief scene from a possible future outside Mars, this story is one that makes me rethink picking up another outdated sci-fi book. The technology of the future remains a mere upgrade of what they had in the ’60s, so even the most desperate situation in the story seems just laughable to anyone reading today. It’s too bad, really, because it disallows us technology snobs of the 21st century to rightly appreciate the dreams of those great thinkers from a mere generation past!

09—”Out of the Sun” – An imaginative life form escapes its comfortable abode in the center of the Sun, and Clarke waxes quite poetic about its origin, fate, and opinion of the human race. Oddly, even this fantastic drama opens up new avenues of divine awe for me, as Clarke describes the suns size, heat, and brilliance. I can only imagine what it will be like to one day gaze at One Who outshines even our own sun, to view my eternal home that will be lit by His mere presence. Quite amazing to ponder!

10—”The Wall of Darkness” – “Time could never destroy the truth—it could only hide it among legends.” (122). This is a masterful story that could very easily be made into a much longer novel or film. The best of the book so far, and I’m not even a fan of the fantasy genre!

11—”No Morning After” – A comedy, which was surprising. The ending was known from the beginning, but it was still fun to read. It makes me thankful that this world isn’t managed by humans like good ol’ Bill.

12—”The Possessed” – An evolutionary yarn with another twisted ending. A silly tale where Nature is supposed to have said “Oops.”

13—”Death and the Senator” – As philosophical as anything Clarke has offered thus far, this emotional tale perhaps served as an autobiographic search for the meaning of life in the face of death. A truly moving, albeit Godless, piece. Very well written.

14—”Who’s There?” – Another Two Minute Mystery by Clarke.

15—”Before Eden” – Before I started, I wondered it it would at all like Jack London’s Before Adam. Not really. In fact I’d consider it more a call for environmental awareness than anything.

16—”Superiority” – Based simply on his introduction that this story eventually became required reading at MIT, this one was predictable, and similar to “I Remember Babylon,” though not nearly as good.

17—”A Walk in the Dark” – Clarke really takes you for a ride in this one! That aliens are never terrifying to me dampened the effect a bit, but I was still enthralled, for Darkness itself can be a terrible foe.

18—”The Call of the Stars” – A history with that same, send-your-boy-off-to-war anxiety, only set in space in the early 2000s.

19—”The Reluctant Orchid” – This one reminds me of that Rick Moranis movie, Little Shop of Horrors. Hercules wore Moranis’s face in my mind at least. A bit farther from the norm for Clarke, but in a Twilight Zone kind of way.

20—”Encounter at Dawn” – Two generations—separated by a hundred-thousand years and an untold number of galaxies—meet. The ending was no huge surprise, but it must have been at first publication.

21—”If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth” – Nothing too shocking here, but a great stir of the imagination to be that child, the first generation required to survive underground in the moon, watching a dead earth float by day after day.

22—”Patent Pending” – A raucous tale akin to “I Remember Babylon” and quite similar to the Virtual Reality sex market we see praised so often on The Drudge Report. Makes you wonder where all those American groups have gone: “The Mothers’ Union, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Housewives League, and all the religious organizations” who in the good ol’ days “would rise as one” against such immorality.

23—”The Sentinel” – This story is “the foundation upon which Stanley Kubrick and [Clarke] later erected 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Again, this gives even more depths of understanding to someone interested in ever comprehending one of the most frustratingly interesting movies ever made.

24—”Transience” – Like many stories here, this one is location-based, with characters only reflecting the intrinsic life of the land.

25—”The Star” – “Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed that the heavens declared the glory of God’s handiwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled.” From what I’ve read, this statement is more autobiographical than fiction! A Jesuit priest struggles with his faith once he realizes that God—if there really is a God—destroyed an entire solar system of intelligent civilization in order to inform the wise men of Christ’s birth. And likely, some idiot is going to use similar logic of “possibilities” to describe why be believes there to be no intelligence in the design of our universe. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” Clarke publishes it in a book.

©2016 E.T.

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One Response to Book Review: “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke. (1966)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “God in the Manger” by John MacArthur (2001) | Elliot's Blog

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