Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

#StoryDecon: ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury

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This article is filled with spoilers. If you haven’t read it already, you can find the 1952 story itself online here.

Plot summary

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).

Style

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’.

Character

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’.

Structure

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.

Read other #StoryDecon articles.

Favourite books read in 2013

Rabbit

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom novels (John Updike, 1960-2000)

I found reading Rabbit, Run (1960) a revelation. Its third-person, present-tense point of view lends the story an immediacy, but that would be nothing without Updike’s immaculate observational powers. That vast sections of the novel feature nothing more dramatic than Harry driving around in the dark, yet are still gripping, speaks volumes. While I found the switch to Janice’s point of view the least satisfying element, stylistically, the narrative bombshell dropped still makes me choke.

Reading a novel that you fully connect with is wonderful. Discovering subsequently that you have the ability to follow the same characters over forty years at decade-long intervals… that’s a rare treat. Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2000) each cover subtly different aspects of changing American culture and, more importantly, of the psyche of the average American male. Taken as a complete work, they are as perfect a novel as I think I’m ever likely to read.

 

The-Martian-ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950)

This ‘half-cousin to a novel’ (Bradbury’s own words) comprises 28 loosely connected stories. Most of them had been published previously in the late Forties in various SF magazines. In collecting them here, Bradbury traces connecting lines between stories and recurring characters. The effect is a disorienting series of snapshots that nevertheless builds up a far more complete vision of the future than a more straightforward novel.

And what a vision! At times, Bradbury’s prose can be staggeringly beautiful. For example, from ‘The Locusts’: The rockets set the bony meadows afire, turned rock to lava, turned wood to charcoal, transmitted water to steam, made sand and silica into green glass which lay like shattered mirrors reflecting the invasion, all about. Bradbury’s Mars, modelled in the image of the memories of homesick astronauts, tells us far more about nostalgia for one’s childhood than about the Red Planet.

At heart, my favourite science fiction has little to do with science. I may have only read it for the first time this year, but The Martian Chronicles is my favourite science fiction novel.

 

Other EyesOther Days, Other Eyes (Bob Shaw, 1972)

A down-at-heel scientist accidentally creates glass that holds its image for years. Inventions, breakthroughs and problems ensue.

I read this in a couple of sittings, amazed at how much mileage Bob Shaw gets from a simple, hypothetical invention. The eventual use of ‘slow glass’ as a surveillance tool prefigures issues topical today: CCTV and Google’s Streetview and Glass projects. Throughout the novel, interspersed sections paint vignettes of different aspects of life that have been irrevocably changed by the invention of slow glass, many of them heartbreaking.

While the main plot may wrap up a little too quickly, and the love interest is under-developed, Shaw’s novel dwells on the human resonances of an important breakthrough. I’ll be searching out more of his novels in 2014.

Nostalgia in The Martian Chronicles

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In The Martian Chronicles, we are told that the colonists arrive ‘with small dreams or big dreams or none at all’. However, throughout the stories Bradbury suggests that the motivating factors for many characters are nostalgia and the clarity of early memories.

In ‘The Third Expedition’, John Black is easily tricked by the Martian’s use of his own memories to populate the town. When he sees his parents, he ‘[runs] up the steps like a child to meet them’. His unquestioning acceptance may be difficult to understand at first, but throughout the stories Bradbury shows that each group of colonists yearns for reminders of its past. Although Anna LaFarge in ‘The Martian’ says of her dead son Tom, ‘He’s been dead so long now, we should try to forget him and everything on Earth’, she and her husband perpetuate the illusion that the Martian is Tom in order to cling on to their nostalgic memories. Similarly, in ‘The Long Years’, Hathaway eases his isolation by creating robot versions of his family.

Nostalgia also fuels other aspects of the characters’ psyches. Father Peregrine’s memories of fire balloons fuels his evangelical religious convictions. In ‘Way in the Middle of the Air’, Samuel Teece’s memories of night-time attacks on black people involve ‘laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s’.

Many characters demonstrate that their ambitions extend only to a recreation of familiar Earth occupations. For example, the luggage-store owner states, ‘We came up here to get away from things’, yet his job selling luggage to people returning to Earth is regressive. Sam Parkhill, in ‘The Off Season’, has travelled to Mars only to set up a hot dog stand.

Bradbury shows us that the visitors to Mars, like European colonists of America, are not searching for a new world, but rather a safe place to recreate their own past.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 08 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian canals

Martian canals

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vision of Mars in A Princess of Mars [1] owes a debt to Percival Lowell’s astronomical observations, but itself propagated a specific image of the planet in the public consciousness.

In 1895, Percival Lowell published Mars [2], a summary of his observations of the planet. His descriptions of Martian ‘canals’ were influenced by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s references to ‘canali’ [3 – see image], more properly translated as ‘channels’ or ‘gullies’. The concept of Martian canals, in this and Lowell’s later works [4], fuelled many people’s belief that Mars was an inhabited, ruined world.

Burroughs, who was aware of Lowell’s theories, included ‘the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers’ in his vision of Mars. The canals have primary importance in the novel, controlled by the red Martians and the source of conflict between the races of the planet. Extrapolating from Lowell’s vision of a ruined world, Burroughs introduced Atmosphere Plants, combating the environmental threat of extinction of life. In his descriptions of ‘arid and semi-arid land’, ‘ruined edifices of the ancient city’ and ‘partially ruined towers of ancient Thark’, Burroughs aligned John Carter’s observations to Lowell’s popularly-believed findings.

While Lowell did influence other writers at the time of the publication of his work, including H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds [5], it was Burrough’s Barsoom series that proved the greater catalyst for the public perception of Mars. The concept of Martian canals remains popular today, as well as being a staple in literary depictions of the planet. Canals appear in The Martian Chronicles [6] by Ray Bradbury, who ‘admired Burrough’s Martian tales because they were romantic and moved the blood as much as the mind’ [7]. Many writers who later became prominent science-fiction authors were similarly influenced at an early age by Burroughs’s vision of Mars.

References
[1] Edgar Rice Burroughs – A Princess of Mars (1917)
[2] Percival Lowell – Mars (1895)
[3] Historical map of planet Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)
[4] Percival Lowell – Mars and Its Canals (1906)
[5] H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds (1898)
[6] Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)
[7] Aaron Parrett, Introduction: Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Martian Tales Trilogy, Barnes and Noble edition (2006)

Submitted to Coursera as essay 07 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5