a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Nine Billion Names of God (1953)
Arthur C. Clarke
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

As much about computers as it is about mathematics, we join two programmers hired by a Buddhist sect seeking to find all true names of God by exhausting a combinatorial library of possibilities.

Appears in Mathematical Magpie.

Contributed by Nelson Walker

One of ACC's best short stories ever, and an glimpse of 1960s era computer science.

Contributed by Ken Miller

This is as suspenseful as any story I've read. I actually had to strain to keep my eyes from prematurely reading the last line. Excellent.

Contributed by Kate Miller

One of the most chilling, disturbing endings I've read.

Contributed by marcus wright

This story has always reminded me of the Towers of Hanoi myth. Each move is a holy act (analogous to a name of God), and the purpose of man is to do the 2^64-1 holy acts.10^30 is somewhat larger than nine billion. When I teach the towers of Hanoi, I always quote Clarke's story.

Contributed by Maciej

The final sentence of the story has become a very popular cliché expression in the Polish fandom.

Contributed by Heather MacDonald

I read this story many years ago in a Sci Fi paperback pocket bood. My twin sister and I grew up in the fifties and devoured every anthology we could lay our hands on by Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Kornbluth etc. This story seems more metaphysical than mathematical to me but it really blew my mind and for years, I searched around for it so that I could read it to my own students. Alas, until I happened on this web page, I couldn't even remember who wrote it. Thanks for the info. Now I will hunt the story down. I rate it a 10 out of 10 but I am not a mathematician!

Contributed by Bill Reich

It is a work that depends largely on the value of the ending. One of the best of that kind. Easily compared with Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" except that no one can convince anyone else which of them is better. - Will

Contributed by Douglas Borsom

In chapter 12 of "Adventures of a Mathematician," Stan Ulam's autobiography, Ulam has a passage about the efforts of John von Neumann to build a general purpose computer at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. Ulam quotes Neumann as telling him, "I don't know how really useful this will be. But at any rate it will be possible to get a lot credit in Tibet by coding 'Om Mane Padme Hum' [Oh thou flower of lotus] a hundred million times in an hour. It will far exceed anything a prayer wheel can do." (page 230).

Clarke's story appeared in 1953. Ulam's book is vague as to when Neumann made the statement. Neumann's computer was completed in 1952. Ulam says that Neumann made the comment "When the machine neared completion." Despite this, I suspect Neumann got the idea from Clarke's story, rather than the other way 'round, and that Ulam was confused about when that particular conversation occurred.

A most unusual "short story" by Carter Scholz is called "The Nine Billion Names of God" and takes the form of letters between Scholz and an editor at a science fiction magazine discussing the fact that Scholz submitted a copy of Clarke's story with his name on the byline. Scholz claims that even though it is a word-for-word copy that he submitted, this is not plagiarism since there are important differences. For instance, he gives the same words different interpretations...and the story has a different meaning precisely because it was written now instead of in the 1950's! Entertaining, and thought provoking, but not itself a work of mathematical fiction, you might want to check it out in the collection The Amount to Carry (which also contains the story A Catastrophe Machine).

Contributed by Tina Chang

This is one of my absolute favorites of all time!

Contributed by Jose Brox

The story is just topical and has barely any math on it. There are plenty of sf tales more original and better written than this one!

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Works Similar to The Nine Billion Names of God
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Pi by Darren Aronofsky (director)
  2. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  3. Palimpsest by Howard V. Hendrix
  4. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  5. The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek] by Kurd Lasswitz
  6. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  7. The Power of Words by Edgar Allan Poe
  8. Grigori’s Solution by Isobelle Carmody
  9. Into the Comet by Arthur C. Clarke
  10. Sixty Million Trillion Combinations by Isaac Asimov
Ratings for The Nine Billion Names of God:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.43/5 (25 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (25 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)