This article is filled with spoilers. If you haven’t read it already, you can find the 1952 story itself online here.
In the near future, Eckels, a hunter, pays to travel back in time with a safari group to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. When they arrive, the hunters are instructed by the guide, Travis, to stay on a metal path in order to avoid having severe repercussions on the future. Upon seeing the dinosaur Eckels becomes terrified and strays off the path, to Travis’s outrage. Back in the present they find that the world has been subtly changed. Eckels discovers a crushed butterfly on his boot, which has caused the changes. Travis raises his rifle.
Point of view
The story follows Eckels in third person. It’s not a close POV. Some direct thoughts are signalled – for example: ‘Eckels remembered the wording in the advertisements to the letter.’ Others are stated directly: ‘The sign on the wall seemed to quaver under a film of sliding warm water’ (an arresting first line that tells us far more about Eckels’s state of mind than it does about the plot).
Many aspects of the story are related matter-of-factly. In particular, certain central elements are dismissed with a cursory description (the time machine itself is described abstractly: ‘a mass and tangle, a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes, at an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue’. Similarly, details of time travel are abstract: ‘First a day and then a night and then a day and then a night, then it was day-night-day-night. A week, a month, a year, a decade! A.D. 2055. A.D. 2019. 1999! 1957! Gone! The Machine roared.’ The return journey through time is described in the briefest possible manner: ‘1492. 1776. 1812.’ There’s also a wonderfully concise explanation of the paradox of meeting oneself in the past: ‘Time steps aside’.
Then, as in other Bradbury stories I’ve read, he lets loose with poetic descriptions, centred on a single vital element. For example, ‘There was a sound like a gigantic bonfire burning all of Time, all the years and all the parchment calendars, all the hours piled high and set aflame.’
Bradbury reserves by the most detailed descriptions for the Tyrannosaurus Rex , including lots of emotive metaphors: ‘Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers’ / ‘Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs’.
Only essential details are given about all characters, including Eckels. Attitudes are neatly conveyed through concise dialogue attributions – for example, ‘”Can these guns get a dinosaur cold?” Eckels felt his mouth saying.’ Peripheral characters aren’t described beyond their function, such as ‘the official’.
The introduction of the anti-gravity Path is the first hint of the central tension. At this stage, the readers asks: What would happen if a hunter stepped from the Path? Why would that kind of interaction with their environment be prohibited, when killing a dinosaur is permitted? Travis supplies answers soon after, but the method of ensuring that certain animals are safe to shoot seems dubious. If simply stepping on the grass might endanger a nation, surely killing any animal (even two minutes before its natural death) can only be more severe? The reader is left suspicious and doubtful that the safari can end well.
The first time the phrase ‘a sound of thunder’ occurs, it refers both to the arrival of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the anxiety that Eckels feels. Eckels’s growing fear, and his statement “It can’t be killed,” cranks up the tension.
The details of the changed present-day America may be convenient (while the grammar of the English language has changed, and the election has been won by a fascist party, the Time Safari offices are more or less the same), this allows the point to hit home effectively – i.e. that Eckels’s actions have changed the future. We don’t even need to leave the offices to understand all the repercussions.
The final line is the repeated phrase: ‘There was a sound of thunder.’ This time it refers to the sound of Travis firing his rifle (presumably, shooting Eckels, through rage rather than any hope of righting the error). It mirrors the first use of the phrase, where it conveyed Eckels’s sense of oncoming doom.
What has ‘A Sound of Thunder’ taught me about writing short stories?
- Save the poetry for aspects that deserve it. Bradbury’s characters and most descriptions serve to push the plot along. But travelling through time and, in particular, the T-Rex warrant the full force of his descriptive skills.
- Don’t linger. Most of the time-travel ‘rules’ are relayed by Travis. There’s no mucking around with descriptions of the sterilization process or the Path. They’re Macguffins that facilitate Eckels’s journey.
- End with a punch. While the story’s memorable image is the crushed butterfly (the literal ‘butterfly effect’), this isn’t strong enough to end the story. The reader has expected repercussions from the safari, and the butterfly only explains why the present has been altered. Instead, Bradbury ends the story with the direct threat to Eckels’s life, and the repeated title phrase, which ties the two parts of the story together and makes this a character piece, more than a cold study of a scientific theory.