Wednesday, May 20, 2009

666th Blog Entry (Really): Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God"

hal.jpg Book Selection of the Month (May 2009, Month of the Nerd II): Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories, in particular “The Nine Billion Names of God”

While nostalgia or the desire to master arcana may draw many nerds to sci-fi, the thing that keeps hope alive — despite perpetual disappointment — in the hearts of some nerds is a genuine desire to see something completely unexpected that genuinely blows your mind or changes the way you see the world. That doesn’t happen often.

One reason the Matrix sequels, even if they’d been better executed, would have been hard pressed to match the first film is that the big revelation — that the world we know is an illusion — had already been dispensed with, leaving us with only a fantasy realm suitable for kung fu fights and car chases. Fight Club is in some sense better sci-fi (even without technically being sci-fi), since it at least starts out with a simple but plausible premise and extrapolates to show us how the sociological ramifications transform the world, which is the sort of thing good sci-fi should do.

Thanks to a reporter acquaintance at the Wall Street Journal, I received an anthology of all of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories as a birthday gift one year, and it’s great evidence that well-done sci-fi can change perceptions and change the world — a vindication of the nerd culture celebrated all this month on this blog.

I’ll give away just one short story (and it is short) in the massive volume as an example: In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” computer scientists are hired by Buddhist monks to run a program that will generate every possible name, the idea being to make faster progress on their spiritual goal of discovering every one of God’s names. The scientists note in passing, and with some amusement, that there’s an ancient belief that if all of God’s names are ever spelled out, God will have no further need for the universe, since the discovery of his many names is the true purpose of Creation. The scientists discuss the idea outside at night as the computer program finishes its work, and they look up to see the stars begin quietly blinking out of existence.

Again, I hope to greatly enjoy Terminator Salvation in a few days — and it may well bear a closer resemblance to our actual fate than the Clarke story I’ve described — but wouldn’t it be wonderful to walk out of the theatre once in a while as awed as the reader is upon finishing that Clarke story instead of just excited? It was a joy to hear the voice of the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as the ship’s computer one last time in the Star Trek movie, but as a culture we probably need HAL 9000 more.

In addition to thanking the already-mentioned Journal reporter for getting me to read the Clarke stories, I’m also grateful for the nudge I received from Skeptical Inquirer and the great Harlan Ellison piece they ran about Clarke recently. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, Ellison, with whom I spoke very, very briefly back when I worked as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press, has reportedly sued two of the three sci-fi franchises rebooting this month, Trek for mangling and reusing elements of the time travel episode — featuring Guardian and the tragic Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) — he wrote back in the 60s, and Terminator for borrowing story elements for which you’ll notice he is now thanked in the credits of the first film, in what is obviously a thank-you inserted after the original theatrical release, in a slightly different font.

In a less-amazing act of time travel, at this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar about animal welfare, I read the following amusing and harsh passage from a century-old book, Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs:

In form and movement the woodchuck is not captivating. His body is heavy and flabby. Indeed, such a flaccid, fluid, pouchy carcass I have never before seen. It has absolutely no muscular tension or rigidity, but is as baggy and shaky as a skin filled with water. The legs of the woodchuck are short and stout, and made for digging rather than running. The latter operation he performs by short leaps, his belly scarcely clearing the ground. For a short distance he can make very good time, but he seldom trusts himself far from his hole, and, when surprised in that predicament, makes little effort to escape, but, grating his teeth, looks danger squarely in the face…Dig one out during hibernation (Audubon did so), and you find it a mere inanimate ball, that suffers itself to be moved and rolled about without showing signs of wakening. But bring it by the fire, and it presently unrolls and opens its eyes, and crawls feebly about, and if left to itself will seek some dark hole or corner, roll itself up again, and resume its former condition.

And speaking of science and nature, as I write this at least, you can scroll down to the “Little Crop of Horrors” clip on The Daily Show’s front page to see the May 14, 2009 appearance on that show of my organic-food-criticizing co-worker Jeff Stier from the American Council on Science and Health.

Or if you’re just a little tired of hearing about science at this point, join us tonight at the monthly Manhattan Project bar gathering I host for libertarians and conservatives (6:30pm at Merchants NY East, 62nd and First) and tell me that spirituality and tradition are what matter. I can take it, and I’m sure Clarke would have been fascinated.


Diana said...

Here is the link to that section of the show

Don’t know if Jeff Stier is really dishing out the kind of publicity you want.

Diana said...

sorry, here’s the specific clip