Book Review and Science - The Nine Billion Names of God
The Same Story Written by Two Men at Different Times
If you put 100 monkeys in a room...
Some philosophers of a certain type state that if you place 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters at 100 desks, then you will eventually end up with all the works of William Shakespeare.
Interesting to ponder, I think the statement must be a modern zen koan interlaced with a joke - some sort of value statement about what the world considered classical, or possible, in literature. Something about Shakespeare not having written his own works as well is entailed in this Yankee koan.
Two men writing the same story in different places...
While it has become increasingly more frequent that authors are using identical names fo rbooks and stories written in a century bygone or even in the same decade, it is not very often that two men write the identical story word for word. I know of this singular instance. The Nine Billion Names of God was written by the venerable Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1953 and is included in his science fiction anthology of the same name.
Sir Arthur's futures past...
Sir Arthur predicted the use of communications satellites in 1945 and submitted a proposal for such a system that was nearly laughed out of court. However, within a few years, Sputnik had indeed launched and within another decade, the world had satellite communications via Intelsat and COMSAT. Sir Arthur was honored by given broadcast duties alongside Walter Cronkite for the Apollo missions, including the first Lunar landing. He was being taken seriously.
In The Nine Billlion Names of God, Sir Arthur had visions in 1953 of UNIVAC-like computers working on a commercial scale.
Indeed, by the late 1950s, UNIVAC was used by the US Postal Service and for the United States Census, as well as by Prudential Insurance Company and about a half dozen other commercial companies. It was used in matchmaking on the Art Linkletter TV show House Party and People are Funny in the early and mid-50s as a matchmaker rivaled by nothing seriously since that time, until eHarmony computer matching arrived.
Story Titles in the Anthology
* 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
Electric Typewriters Attached to UNIVAC
In Sir Arthur's story, a UNIVAC-like computing machine is on sale in Manhattan to anyone having enough cash to purchase one. The owners' goal is to sell these machines to successful companies and wealthy individuals.
Into the company headquarters comes the High Lama of Tibet, wishing to purchase a computer of this type, in 1953.
One wonders the purpose to which the High Lama would like to set this UNIVACian machine. He and his brother monks are working on a project of hand calculations that will take a total of 15,000 years to complete. They and the monks before them have worked on the project for 300 years already and would like to see its completion during their current lifetime and as soon as possible.
The monks and the High Lama have heard that the computing machine for sale in Manhattan with its electric typewriters attached can complete the project in a total of only 1,000 days. They wish to purchase one with their life savings and show the head of the company proof of their solvency.
UNIVAC to Tibet
A deal is struck and the machine goes to Tibet to work for 1,000 days. It works on a 9-letter alphabet and derives all the possible 9-letter combinations therein. This, says the High Lama, will surely capture all of the Names of God in all religions.
A crew of American computer technicians accompanies the computing machine to Tibet and live among the monks and the High lama until the job is nearly complete. They refer to the High Lama as "Sam Jaffe" as a nickname, the name of the actor portraying the University Professor in the 1951 sci fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. He also played a Tibetan monk in Lost Horizon.
The computer technicians in Tibet are told in the last two weeks of the project by one of the monks that when all the Names of God are pasted into a sacred scrapbook of many volumes, a special event will occur. It will be a sizable event, because it will celebrate the completion of mankind's best purpose, discovering the nine billion names of the deity in all religions.
The technicians become alarmed and arrange to leave the country on a flight booked out on the evening of the project's end. They joke about what a disappointment it will be to the monks that another doomsday event has turned out to be a hoax as they wind their way down a mountain side on pack mules. However, strange things begin to occur before they reach the airstrip. The stars begin to disappear...
Same Story, Different Verse
Another science fiction writer actually borrowed Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God for his own short story of the same name. This is Carter Scholz, who incorporates science and theology into a different type of literary genre that is not quite science fiction. Perhaps you'd call it scientific fiction. Scholz calls it a story written in "mathematical fiction."
Scholz's story shapes up as a series of letters between himself, Carter Scholz, and a sci fi magazine editor about Scholz's story called The Nine Billion Names of God, that he has copied word-for-word from Clarke.The editor claims that it is plagiarism. Carter states that it is certainly not, because it contains vital differences from Sir Arthur's tale, even though it contains the same words.
Carter explains this by showing that he gives the words different interpretations, exactly because they are recognized a half century after the original piece by their modern definitions and implications. The ensuing back and forth between Carter and the editor is quite fun to read. It is included in the Carter Scholz book The Amount to Carry, also the title of tone of the stories, about scientists working at "day jobs" in the insurance industry.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke died at 1:30 AM on the morning of March 18, 2008 at the age of 90.
I awoke very early that morning, having had a dream about an old science fiction story and feeling rather sad about it, because the star of the film version died too young, in my opinion.
I switched on a TV channel and was surpised that it was playing a black and white science fiction film from 1956, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which offered America formulating new sound wave technologies to defend iteself against aliens. This station does not usually offer science fiction, so it was out of the ordinary. It simply played one interesting sci fi film without comment. What was coincidental about it was that the film had been written by Major Donald Keyhoe of US SIr Force Project Blue Book UFO study mission, the same Donald Keyhoe with whom I had corresponded as a child while doing a school project about UFOs. This day was surrreal.
As I left the house later, the day was as grey as the old film. It was still later that I learned of the death of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. It was all fitting somehow. Sci fi dreams, the sadness of death, a film written by an old "pen pal" of sorts in Project Blue Book, and a grey day. I will miss Arthur C. Clarke and his work in Sri Lanka and in science fiction and science fact.
I am pleased to have read many of his books and will read the remaining titles very soon. I hope the next generation benefits from them as well. Sir Arthur demonstrated how easily science fiction can become science fact -- even if they laugh you out of court at first.
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS