Study Questions for Arthur C. Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God" [1953]

Clarke's story arrives more than 15 years after the popular Hollywood film Lost Horizon [1937] starring Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyatt, and Sam Jaffe.The film won Oscars for film editing and art direction, and was nominated for best picture and in five other categories. Clarke clearly intends his readers to imagine his lamasery through the film, for he directly references Shangri-La [the setting of the film and James Hilton's novel of the same title] and Sam Jaffe, who played the Tibetan lama in the film [918]. The reference to a hidden Shangri-La where residents experienced immortality and where skeptical outsiders refuse to believe the lamas until the end provides attentive Clarke readers with a hint as to his sting in the tail end. Here are a few questions to consider:

  1. How would you describe the attitude of Dr. Wagner toward the lama in the opening pages of the story? How do George Haney and Chuck further evidence the scientists' dismissal of the lamas' beliefs? What specific examples could you cite?
  2. In what ways does Clarke undermine the typical associations that we have about lamas and Tibetan monks? What specifically do they do around Chuck and in town that surprises the two computer engineers?
  3. When Chuck says to the lama, "Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world" (919), the lama replies, "It's nothing as trivial as that" (918). What then, are we supposed to come to understand in the final moment of the story? What exactly does happen?
  4. What imagery and specific language of the final few paragraphs is ironic, especially as it pertains to the perspectives of George and Chuck?