Short Story Saturday: “A Sound Of Thunder”

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Welcome back! This week, we’re going to take a look at Ray Bradbury’s classic tale, “A Sound Of Thunder,” a story about how small mistakes can spiral out and have horrible consequences.

The story takes place in 2055, where time travel is a thing that can happen now. And what does humanity do with this wondrous technology? They use it to hunt dinosaurs, of course.

And so our story starts with a guy named Eckels, who’s come to a company called Time Safari, Inc., to do just that. The story pays close attention to the sign Eckels sees as he’s entering the building:

TIME SAFARI, INC.

SAFARIS TO ANY YEAR IN THE PAST.YOU NAME THE ANIMAL.

WE TAKE YOU THERE.

YOU SHOOT IT.

Remember this sign, because it comes up again later.

So Eckels is a little bit nervous, and chats with the guy behind the desk for a little while. Subjects of conversation include whether he’s guaranteed to survive the trip (he’s not), consequences for failing to follow instructions (huge amounts of money and possible legal action), as well as the recent presidential election. It seems that some guy named Keith was running against another named Deutscher, and it’s a good thing Keith on, otherwise Time Safari would have had to close down. This is also something that becomes important late.r

Anyway, the desk guy tries to put the fear of god into Eckels, mostly to drive home the possible death part, and then takes him to gather his gear before heading to the time machine. Here, Eckels meets his guide Travis, Travis’s assistant Lesperance, and two other hunters named Billings and Kramer. While on the way back in time, Travis explains some things.

First off, there’s a path hovering just above the ground so it doesn’t crush any of the grass, and they aren’t to stray from said path. Second, they are not to shoot any animals there other than ones marked by Lesperance (who had come by earlier to check them out) as about to die.

Eckels asks why they’re taking so many precautions about this, and Travis explains they don’t want to even get remotely near changing the past. He gives the example of killing a mouse in the past: that mouse could have fed a fox, which could have fed a lion, which could have fed a cavemen. The caveman dies, without having any offspring, which could lead to an entire nation of people never existing.

So, yeah, pretty important that they don’t fuck around while they’re here.

Anyway, the five men leave the time machine, and pretty soon they come across their prey: a T-rex. Unfortunately, the creature is way bigger than Eckels is prepared to deal with, and he freaks out and tries to run, stepping off the path in the process. Travis tells Eckels to go and wait in the time machine.

The other two hunters shoot and kill the T-rex, and then the other four head back themselves. Travis, it should be noted, is fire-pissed about what Eckels has done, and tells him that they’re going to leave him there. Lesperance intervenes, and says that Eckels only kicked up some dirt. Travis says that they can’t know that for sure, but relents and tells Eckels to go retrieve the bullets from the dead animal.

Eckels does, and, after returning from his grisly task, the group gets in the time machine and heads back.

When they return, Eckels notices that things are a little…different. Colors, for instance, seems to be a little off, and the sign from earlier has some creative spelling choices:

TYME SEFARI INC.

SEFARIS TU ANY YEER EN THE PAST.

YU NAIM THE ANIMALL.

WEE TAEK YU THAIR.

YU SHOOT ITT.

Also, he goes up to the guy behind the desk and asks who won the presidential election. The guy responds that it was Deutscher, of course, and they’re all the better for it. Frantic, Eckels scrapes some of the mud from the bottom of his shoe.

To find a single, dead butterfly.

This prompts Travis to load up and aim his rifle, after which Eckels hears “a sound of thunder.”

So that’s a bit of a bleak tale. As mentioned above, it’s basically about how small things can have huge effects. In this instance, something as insignificant as stepping on an insect causes drastic changes to the world the characters inhabit.

The concept of “the butterfly effect” from chaos theory is often misattributed to Bradbury, but actually originated with with a metorologist named Edward Norton Lorenz. This idea essentially posits that something as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings can have drastic impacts on the weather patterns across the world. Though Bradbury didn’t come up with the phrase (that came later), this story is a great illustration of that idea.

So maybe think about this the next time you step on a bug.

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