Arthur C. Clarke is, of course, the British SF writer (who lived much of his life in Sri Lanka) most famous for the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as several other of the most popular and influental SF novels of the 20th century: Childhood’s End (1953), The City and the Stars (1956), Rendezvous with Rama (1973), The Fountains of Paradise (1979). He also wrote many short stories, a couple of which are also among the most popular of all time. And both explore implications of religious ideas.
It’s my thesis in this blog that science fiction can be a useful way to examine alternatives to religious and philosophical and cultural assumptions, in ways that would never occur to people who live within those assumptions. (Most people, I think, absorb these assumptions without thinking about them; they have no reason to, and they live comfortably with others who have the same assumptions. That’s culture. And that’s why there are so many different cultures, with different implicit beliefs about the nature of the world. The people within them aren’t dumb; they just don’t get out much, intellectually.)
The two Clarke stories are “The Nine Billion Names of God”, published in 1953, and “The Star”, published in 1955.
Following are summaries of each story, with commentary. To provide spoiler alerts, I will simply set the last paragraph of summary for each story in white text. If you want to see them, just left-click your mouse and drag it over the apparently blank area, and the ‘hidden’ text will appear.
“The Nine Billion Names of God”, first published in 1953, has just three scenes.
Scene One: A Dr. Wagner, in a New York City office, interviews a Tibetan lama about the purchase of an “Automatic Sequence Computer.” The lama explains they have a long-standing project to compile a list of all the possible names of God. They have devised a special alphabet for this purpose, which they have concluded needs no more than nine letters for any possible name. Generating all possible names (combinations of letters) was to have taken 15,000 years; with the computer, it will take 100 days.
Scene Two: Two technicians from the computer company, on location in Tibet to support the project, converse. One of them confides to the other that he’s discovered the purpose of this project. The monks believe that when they’ve listed all possible names of God – which they reckon amount to about nine billion – God’s purpose will have been served and “there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.” Not just the end of the world – “nothing as trivial as that”, the monks say. The technicians worry about the monks’ reaction when the project finishes and nothing does happen; will they react violently? Or like the end-of-the-world cults who, when the end of the world doesn’t happen, presume the calculations were wrong and go on with their lives?
The project is about to finish and the two technicians are ducking out early, riding ponies down to the airport where they will fly home. Darkness falls, and the sky is clear — “ablaze with the familiar, friendly stars” — and they realize the computer should just about have finished its run. And then they look up, and see: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
God works in mysterious ways. Religious apologists are always dismissing the senseless tragedies and accidents in the world, which would seem to challenge the idea of an omniscient, benevolent God, with this phrase. If you pray and your desire comes true, you thank God; if it doesn’t come true, well, then, God works in mysterious ways.
But the corollary of this is that the mysterious ways of God might easily be something completely independent – in fact, seems to be – of human health and happiness (not some hidden scheme to make up for current tragedies with some eventual overall good, which seems to be the implicit belief of those who invoke this defense). Clarke suggests, what if God’s mysterious purpose for humanity is the seemingly trivial task of aggrandizing Himself with all his possible names? And nothing more? Anyone who invokes the mysterious ways defense for God’s apparent disregard for human well-being should be willing to accept this explanation as well as any other.
“The Star”, first published in 1955.
The first-person narrator is on a spaceship, now some 3000 light years from the Vatican, as he puts it. He is a Jesuit astrophysicist on board a ship full of a mostly atheistic crew, to explore the Phoenix Nebula, the remains of an exploded star, a rare supernova. The crew has treated him good-naturedly; they’ve had friendly debates. The remains of the supernova is a white dwarf star, with one surviving planet, on which they discover a Vault – a repository designed to be found, left by a civilization that knew it was about to die. A bid for immortality, a vault that will take years to fully explore. The narrator wonders for what reason this civilization was destroyed. His colleagues say the universe has no purpose or plan, it was a random event.
But then the narrator does the calculations, and figures out exactly when the light of this supernova would have reached Earth. And has the revelation that casts his faith into question:
“There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”
Collateral damage. The implicit premise here is that, as according to the traditional religions, Earth and mankind are truly the center of the universe, and all those millions of galaxies and billions of light years of space that we have recently perceived are incidental, at best decoration. So, if the creator God wanted to stage a lightshow for the birth of his ‘child’ [a problematic concept at best], why worry about the consequences of an entire non-human civilization cast to the fire of a supernova? Mankind is all that counts.
Any problem with that? It’s a legitimate implication of this belief.
Clarke anticipated the consequences of this conclusion, in the final paragraphs of this story.
I know the answers that my colleagues will give when they get back to Earth. They will say that the Universe has no purpose and no plan, that since a hundred suns explode every year in our Galaxy, at this very moment some race is dying in the depths of space. Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.
Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort. Anyone who argues thus is being swayed by emotion, not logic. God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the Universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance — it is perilously near blasphemy — for us to say what He may or may not do.
This I could have accepted, hard though it is look upon whole worlds and people thrown into the furnace. But there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I know I have reached that point at last.
It’s worth noting a comment by J.B.S. Haldane, whom Clarke quotes in the introduction to “The Nine Billion Names of God”, in his short story collection of the same title:
You are one of the very few living persons who has written anything original about God. You have in fact written several mutually incompatible things. If you had stuck to one theological hypothesis you might have been a serious public danger.