By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Sound of Thunder’ is one of the best-known short stories by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). A time-travel story about how changing the past could bring about momentous and catastrophic changes to the future, ‘A Sound of Thunder’ is often taught and studied in schools and remains a classic of 1950s science fiction.
The story was first published in Collier’s magazine in 1952 and then collected a year later in Bradbury’s short-story collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun.
You can read ‘A Sound of Thunder’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Bradbury’s story below.
‘A Sound of Thunder’: plot summary
The story begins in the future, some time around 2055 (or after). A time-travel safari company in the United States, Time Safari Inc., allows animal-hunters to travel back in time in a Time Machine and kill a long-extinct animal, such as a dinosaur. A man named Eckels turns up ready to undertake his safari.
We learn that a US presidential election has just taken place, and everyone is relieved that ‘Keith’ won, rather than his opponent, Deutscher, an anti-intellectual who would have made America into a dictatorship.
Eckels is inquisitive, asking his safari guide, Travis, about the way the safari works. Travis tells him and his fellow hunters – there are two other men travelling back with Travis and his assistant, Lesperance – to stick to the path and only shoot where he tells them to shoot. They are going to shoot and kill a Tyrannosaurus rex once they arrive over sixty million years in the past.
This dinosaur has been specially chosen and marked by Lesperance with red paint earlier that day, so they make sure they kill the right animal and nothing else. The Tyrannosaurus rex targeted for the hunt originally would have died just a few minutes later in any case, so they know that, in killing it, they aren’t interfering with the past.
Travis is very firm when hammering home the importance of sticking to instructions to ensure they don’t interfere with the past. The US government doesn’t like them travelling back in time, so Time Safari Inc. have to pay them a lot of money to keep them sweet and take all sorts of precautions. When Travis tells them that even stepping on and killing a mouse so far in the past could alter the future – and their present from which they have travelled – in all sorts of ways.
This is because, especially over such a vast period of time, little things add up. That one dead mouse, had it lived, might have had a whole family of mice, who would each have produced their own families, and so on. Millions of potential mice would then never exist, if one of the men trod on it back in the distant past.
The foxes which depend on the mice for food would die out. The lions which prey on the foxes would starve. And eventually, when early cavemen evolved, they would have starved, too, and so a whole nation which that one man might have sired would never exist.
Eckels is dismissive that such small changes in the past could have such colossal ramifications. When they arrive in the past and spot the Tyrannosaurus rex targeted for their hunt, it is such a fearsome and majestic beast that Eckels grows terrified, claiming they will be unable to kill it. In his panic, he veers off the specially designated path on which they have been instructed to remain, and steps into the jungle.
The other men shoot and kill the dinosaur, while Travis, angry with Eckels, tells him to go and wait in the Time Machine. As a punishment for flouting his instructions and walking into the jungle, Travis makes Eckels go and retrieve the bullets from the mouth of the dead animal. They then return to their present world, with Travis in two minds over whether to kill Eckels for disobeying his orders and getting the safari company into trouble.
However, upon their arrival they notice that things are subtly different. Both the front desk at the safari company and the man seated behind it are slightly different from before. The air has a chemical taint to it. And the spelling on the safari company’s sign has changed, implying that the English language is different, too. They also learn from the man on the front desk that Deutscher won the election, rather than Keith, and has transformed the United States into a fascist state.
Examining the mud on his shoe, Eckels finds a dead butterfly. Killing the insect has wrought these terrible changes across time. Travis raises his gun and shoots Eckels.
‘A Sound of Thunder’: analysis
‘A Sound of Thunder’ is one of the best-known time-travel stories in all of science fiction, and the tale shows Ray Bradbury’s gift for economical yet lyrical prose, tight narrative structure, and sharp delineation of character.
We sense that Eckels is going to be a liability on the trip from very early on, and much of the key exposition is carried out through dialogue, as Travis firmly – and with growing impatience – underscores the importance of not altering the past, because this could have terrible consequences far in the future.
To emphasise this point, both Bradbury’s third-person narrator and Travis, the key moral voice of the tale, repeatedly stress the interconnected nature of all living things. As Travis points out, the natural world is a delicate ecosystem in which every creature, no matter how small, plays its part: if mice die out, then foxes will die; if foxes die, lions will starve; if lions die out, vultures and insects that feed on a lion’s carcase will eventually go too.
And mankind is not separate from this ecosystem: if these animals did not exist in a particular part of the world, then early man, who relied on them for food (by hunting them, of course: a significant detail given the plot of ‘A Sound of Thunder’), would starve too. And that man might be the progenitor of men and women whose descendants are the very characters in the story, Eckels and Travis, or – as is implied at the end of the story – the nameless man at the front desk.
Even societal and political developments might end up taking a different path: in the election, although the more reasonable and moderate Keith won, the totalitarian Deutscher has won when they return to the altered future. (It’s worth bearing in mind that Bradbury’s story was first published just seven years after the end of the Second World War.
‘Deutscher’ summons ‘Deutschland’, the German name for Germany, and thus suggests the Nazis who had recently been defeated in the war.) With this in mind, one wonders what the ‘chemical taint’ in the air is when the men return to their present. Acid rain? Or the fallout from nuclear war?
Indeed, although the term ‘butterfly effect’ was named for the delicate but profound effects of a butterfly in the Amazon rainforest flapping its wings, it can obviously be retrospectively applied to the plot of ‘A Sound of Thunder’. (The expression ‘butterfly effect’ stemmed from a poetic metaphor for Chaos theory used by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s.)
The ‘ripple effect’ (as it’s also known) shows how delicately everything is related, so that if you remove one element, one single creature, the course of evolution, or the development of an ecosystem, could be radically transformed.
‘A Sound of Thunder’ is a masterly piece of storytelling, but Bradbury’s use of metaphor throughout is also highly effective. Consider the way that phrase, ‘a sound of thunder’, is applied both to the sound made by the Tyrannosaurus rex as it storms through the prehistoric landscape, and the sound made by Travis’ gun when he kills Eckels at the end of the story.
Bradbury applies the term ‘thunder’ to the Tyrannosaurus several times (curiously, another well-known dinosaur, the so-called Brontosaurus, has a name that literally means ‘thunder lizard’, from the thunderous sound made by the great hulking reptiles), but the last line of the story is the first time he applies ‘thunder’ to the sound of a man’s gun. Indeed, when the men shoot at the Tyrannosaurus rex, we are told that the sound of their rifles was ‘lost in shriek and lizard thunder’.
But in their future day, the killing, not of the Tyrannosaurus rex but of the little butterfly has brought out a tyrannical side to man in the future, with America ruled by an actual tyrant or dictator (‘Tyrannosaurus’ means ‘tyrant lizard’, from its dominant size; now, in the future, men are being dominated by a fascist tyrant in the White House).
Although Bradbury’s story is about the way the seemingly small matter of the butterfly’s demise actually has momentous implications for the natural world, the emphasis is, ultimately, just as much on the socio-political changes wrought by Eckels’ clumsiness.
And whilst it may be too much of an interpretive stretch to extrapolate from Eckels’ panic in the face of the mighty T-rex and suggest that one moral of ‘A Sound of Thunder’ is ‘fear breeds tyranny’, it is nevertheless significant that it is not Eckels’ wilfulness that leads to his chaotic destruction, but his blind panic.