Ray Bradbury

A Sound Of Thunder

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A Sound Of Thunder Summary

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One of the most well-known short stories penned by the iconic science fiction author Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder (written in 1952) explores the subject of time travel and its effects. A Sound of Thunder examines causality, technology and associated dangers, imaginative scientific principles, and dystopian political systems, many of which are staple themes in the science fiction genre as a whole. The short story pivots on the notion that seemingly minuscule changes to the distant past can have catastrophic ramifications in the future, and exists in a universe in which time travel is not only possible, it has become commonplace to the point of commodification.

Set in 2055, the main character in this story is Eckels. Wealthy enough to afford the $10,000 price tag for the time travel adventures offered by Time Safari, Inc. (the sole purpose of which is to provide the opportunity to shoot rare and now-extinct animals, as per its sign), Eckels embarks on a journey back to the Late Cretaceous period to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is a risky endeavor, as Eckels learns that at least six guides and twelve hunters have died on the safaris within the past year. Regardless, he is promised excitement, and dinosaurs.

Bradbury inserts an important plot point into the narrative while Eckels is waiting for his expedition to begin. Through a chat with an employee of Time Safari, Inc. about the recent election, readers learn that the democratic candidate, Keith, prevailed over the Fascist and dictatorial candidate, Deutscher. Relieved, they quip that everyone would be running for the time machine if the election had turned out differently.

A tour guide named Travis and his assistant Lesperance lead the trip, whose party includes Eckels and two other hunters. There are strict rules in place for when they land 60,002,055 years in the past: 1. Shoot only the dinosaurs that have already been marked for destruction, and 2. Stay on the path. The path is made of anti-gravity metal, and is designed to keep the future a safe distance from the past, thereby preventing small, potentially unnoticeable changes from occurring and snowballing into momentous changes in the future. Travis illustrates the complex causality of time travel by describing how killing a mouse could affect entire food chains in the future, and therefore the fate of humanity as a whole. “Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity…So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”

Eckels’ encounter with the T-Rex inspires in him a surprising swell of appreciation for the beauty of creation. Here the reader first encounters the “sound of thunder” referenced by the title of the story: the footsteps of the giant beast. He admires its majesty and size, its “great, oiled, resilient striding legs,” and refuses to shoot. Travis, angry that Eckels has backed out, banishes him to the time machine, but still bewildered by his encounter, Eckels heads the wrong way and ends up catching the eye of the dinosaur and inciting its wrath. The team of hunters shoot the T. Rex just in time, but not without stepping off the path and leaving their mark on the past in other ways – the bullets left in the carcass of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Travis orders Eckels to retrieve them or else leave him in the past, and he does so successfully, but the angry tour guide still threatens to execute Eckels for his blunders.

Back in the present – 2055 – Eckels begins to notice subtle but profound changes. The air smells wrong, and the spelling of the sign for Time Safari, Inc. is a little different: “TYME SEFARI INC.” Terrified and confused, Eckels collapses into a chair and notices that there is a butterfly, caked in mud and very dead, stuck to the bottom of his boot. Though the concept of small causes having large effects was not new to science when Bradbury wrote A Sound of Thunder in 1952, the idea that one butterfly could eventually have a far-reaching ripple effect on subsequent historic events (also known as “The Butterfly Effect”) made its earliest known appearance in this short story.

Perhaps the largest consequence of this seemingly small action is that when Eckels asks the same Time Safari, Inc. employee about the recent election, the outcome is completely different: not only has the dictator Deutscher won, but the employee is pleased about it, calling the democratic candidate a “weakling,” and the Fascist candidate an “iron man” and a “man with guts.” Appalled, Eckels grasps at straws and asks Travis for another chance. Then, a sound of thunder for the second time, as it echoes into the future from the distant past: Travis aims his gun at Eckels, and pulls the trigger.