Clarke’s universal sci-fi magic

Special to The Times

In Carter Scholz’s 1984 epistolary jeu d’esprit “The Nine Billion Names of God,” an author named Carter Scholz submits a curiously familiar tale to a science fiction magazine. “Plagiarism occurs in science fiction as elsewhere,” the incensed editor replies, “but I’ve never before seen anyone submit a word-for-word copy of another story, let alone a story as well known as Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God.’ ”

In Clarke’s original 1953 classic, Tibetan monks use a supercomputer to sort through permutations of characters to arrive at the name of God -- at which point, in an elegantly chilling sentence, the universe ceases. The writer in Scholz’s amusing cover version claims to have developed a random-text generator that, to his shock, spat out a verbatim copy of the Clarke story.

Seriously equating Clarke with a form of divinity surely would not have pleased the author, who died Wednesday at age 90 and left explicit instructions that no religious ceremony accompany his death. (For good measure: In what was possibly his last interview, in BBC Focus magazine last December, he said the greatest danger humanity faced was “Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation.”) Yet he was one of the genre’s presiding deities, a member of the Golden Age’s “Big Three,” who still cast their shadows across the field. (That trio’s other two members, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, predeceased Clarke.) Scholz’s dizzying little tower of a story can be read as a tongue-in-cheek take on the anxiety of influence, inventively recycling and repeating other tales -- not just “The Nine Billion Names of God,” but also Asimov’s “The Last Question,” Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and another Clarke text, “The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told.”


For all Clarke’s hard-SF bona fides -- background in physics and mathematics, chair of the British Interplanetary Society, inspiration to scores of astronauts, thinker-upper of geosynchronous orbit, etc. -- a ghost in the machine lingers, a persistent aura of mysticism. Most famously, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which featured the menacing, omniscient spacecraft computer HAL. In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” the supercomputer imported from New York to Tibet hastens the quest for knowledge and expedites the end of everything.

Science and magic

Locus magazine marked Clarke’s 90th birthday recently with testimonials from fellow writers, a brief reminiscence by Clarke and a reprint of the aforementioned Focus interview, which he concluded with the line for which he’ll be remembered for as long as there is remembering: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That maxim has the ring of scientific truth to it: These words will reach my editor’s screen as swiftly as if viewed through a crystal ball in Oz. But one might detect a cautionary tone in that line, or even a secret atavistic wish. Indeed, in Clarke’s work, advances can look an awful lot like regression. At the end of “2001,” astronaut David Bowman transforms into the Star Child.

‘Childhood’s End’

Clarke judged “Childhood’s End” to be the finest of his nearly 100 books (along with “The Songs of Distant Earth”). It was published in 1953, the same year as “The Nine Billion Names of God,” and both works begin in science and dissolve into metaphysics. “Childhood’s End” (at least in the original version; a new beginning was substituted in 1990) kicks off with some Conradian scene-setting (“It was quiet here beneath the palms, high up on the rocky spine of the island”) and an escalating space race between America and Russia (the latter team led by an engineer named Konrad). Then giant alien spaceships hover above the Earth’s cities -- their mere presence implies a power far greater than that of any nation, or of mankind as a whole. The possibility of war vanishes (Clarke was writing this not too long after World War II), and we never see these characters again.

It’s a brilliant prologue, a sucker punch to rattle the reader’s complacency. Our assumption of what this book might be about -- militaristic SF -- vanishes in about the amount of time it takes for humanity to realize that it’s not the center of the universe, not even close. The spacecrafts are like Swords of Damocles, their unseen inhabitants (the Overlords) the last word in passive-aggressiveness. By refusing to lash out or even punish the small but vocal minority of disgruntled humans, the Overlords emphasize the planet’s insignificance. In the meantime, freedom from want is established, cruelty to animals abolished.

When the seemingly benevolent Overlords finally reveal themselves, they turn out to look like traditional depictions of the devil, a legacy of some distant and disastrous visit -- and this is just the start of further mind-bending revelations. “Childhood’s End” is a true novel of ideas, an inquiry into what happens to human nature in the face of utter futility. Clarke balances the cosmic scope with an intimate, often epigrammatic voice. All of mankind’s religions fail in the face of the more advanced Overlords, but ultimately the new chain of command is a surrogate belief system, just as messy and senseless. Was Clarke simply giving us a few more of the nine billion names of God, an elaborately imagined self-destruction kit? Supremely enigmatic, “Childhood’s End” bears an unusual prefatory note that seems appropriate for the man who created those memorably mysterious monoliths: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.”


Ed Park is an editor of the Believer and the author of the forthcoming novel “Personal Days.” His science fiction column “Astral Weeks” appears monthly at