“A Sound of Thunder” is a science fiction short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1952. He set this story 100 years into his future, and just 30 years into ours.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A SOUND OF THUNDER”
A hunter called Eckels from the mid 21st century pays $10,000 to a time machine safari service led by a guy called Travis and his assistant Lesperance. Eckels and two other hunters, called Billings and Kramer, want to travel sixty million years back in time to shoot a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the ultimate trophy dinosaur. (We now know that the T-rex lived between 66 and 90 million years ago.)
Although this dodgy time travel company exists to let hunters shoot dinosaurs, they set strict rules to avoid consequences of the butterfly effect. Unfortunately, once you kill a t-rex, you’ve set off a chain of events which have consequences sixty million years into the future. The dinosaurs they’re allowed to kill are marked with red paint. The time travel company is so full of hubris, they think they can say for sure which dinosaurs are okay to kill. These dinosaurs have been deemed inconsequential because they’re never going to mate again.
They come face-to-face with a T-Rex. They kill it, take their picture standing next to the corpse.
One of the men steps off the path. Worried that he’s changed history simply by getting mud on his shoes, the tour guide shoots him dead.
On the way home in the time travel machine, things are a little awkward. Eckels feels Travis is staring at him. Reminds his tour guide that he didn’t break any rules.
Eckels makes it back to the year 2055 without being shot, but when they arrive back at the time machine company office, someone different from before sits at the front desk. The desk is also slightly different.
Travis tells Eckels to get out. But to Eckels the world now feels uncanny, defamiliarized. If the receptionist and the desk are different, what else is different? The entire world has changed, perhaps in many small ways, perhaps in big ways.
Eckels suddenly gets an attack of the guilts. He also veered off the path, though didn’t admit it. His boots are covered in slime. In the slime is a beautiful dead butterfly.
At this point the reader has probably deduced what else is different in this world, since the USA election was somewhat belaboured at the beginning. The other guy won the election. Also, everyone speaks “Deutscher”.
ALTERNATIVE WAR HISTORY
Ten years after this story was published, another well-known American author — Philip K. Dick — took this idea further and published The Man In The High Castle. In this story, Axis Powers win World War 2. This story remains resonant, adapted as a TV show in 2015.
Here is physicist and science communicator Michio Kaku talking about the challenges facing contemporary physicists.
There are four fundamental forces:
Gravity, which keeps us on the floor.
Electricity and magnetism, which lights up our cities, dynamos, television sets and radio.
Then we have the two nuclear forces. The key to the game is to meld them together. We have the equations for each, but they don’t fit together that well. After fifty years we finally figured out how three of the four forces fit together, except gravity.
So we have gravity on one hand and we have quantum theory on the other hand. We try to put these two theories together. But they don’t fit. They don’t fit! It’s as if God had a left hand and a right hand and they didn’t talk to each other. Now that’s stupid…
Relativity is a theory of the very big, based on smooth surfaces across gravity. The quantum theory is based on particles that you chop up. How do you put these two theories together: theories of particles, and theories of smooth surfaces?
Well, the paradigm that does it is music. All of this is nothing but musical notes. In fact, if Einstein had never been born we would have discovered relativity as the lowest octave of the string. That’s magic. When magic starts to occur in your equations, you’re onto something.
Our job is to put the equations of string theory together like a jigsaw puzzle. The guiding principle is that it has to be beautiful. You put together a jigsaw puzzle and this gorgeous picture emerges as you put the pieces together.
The universe in some sense can also be likened to a chess game. After thousands of years we finally figured out how the pawns, the knights, the bishop move, and now we’re beginning to become grand masters. We’re beginning to figure out how all the pieces move. Then we begin to strategize about how to apply this, to create something novel. Things we cannot answer can be answered by the Theory of Everything: Time Travel, Other Universes, Gateways to other universes. Is it possible that there was a universe before the Big Bang? Is there a black hole connected to a white hole on the other end? These questions cannot be answered using Einstein’s Theory. That’s why we need a Theory of Everything.
People ask me, if there are other universes, is Elvis Presley still alive in another parallel universe? The answer is: Possibly, yes. In this universe, Elvis Presley died. But there could be another universe where Elvis Presley is still belting out those hits. Yes, that is definitely possible, consistent with the known laws of physics.
There’s a TV series based on that concept, Man In The High Castle. It’s based on a short story by Philip K. Dick which, in turn, is based on quantum theory. You see, in the short story, there was an assassin who killed Franklin Roosevelt before WW2. In one universe the gun misfires and Franklin Roosevelt leads the allies to victory against the Nazis. But in another universe that bullet goes through and kills Roosevelt. America is paralysed, the Nazis win World War 2 and take the East Coast. The Japanese Imperial Army may take the West Coast.
So one bullet, which could in turn, be reduced to a quantum event — a misfire — misfiring of the gun powder could cause a bullet to misfire or fire. So two universes open up on the basis of one incident, which is a quantum event, the burning of gun powder inside a bullet.
Isn’t it amazing, that you can have universes split in half. This is called The Many Worlds Theory and string theory is compatible with The Many Worlds Theory. So yeah, universes may be being created even as we speak.
[We don’t know for sure] All we can do is calculate the probability.Michio Kaku | The Quest for a Theory of Everything
A CRITIQUE OF IMPERIALIST FANTASY
Below is an illustration for a different story by a different author, written and illustrated in the 1910s. Literature from the early 1900s depicts a clear enjoyment of a certain Imperialist fantasy: traveling to another time (or place) and shooting amazing, novel creatures with big guns. Ray Bradbury grew up with these stories, lived through WW2, and wrote “A Roll of Thunder” as a critique.
SETTING OF A SOUND OF THUNDER
The travellers start from 2055, which doesn’t sound too far into the future now, does it? There has just been a USA election. A guy called Keith won it. People have been calling the time machine company saying if the other guy wins they want to be taken back to the year 1492.
1492 was a big year in World History. Notably for the Americas, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus saw an island of The Bahamas and thought he’d reached East Asia. He went ashore and claimed the land for Spain. 10th of October has been a national holiday for the USA since 1937.
Contemporary readers may be pulled out of the story somewhat by noticing that Ray Bradbury’s vision of 2055 already feels been and gone. Eckels will pay ten thousand dollars — a paltry sum, unless there’s been some sort of reset on American currency. Not only that, we’ve already entered a cheque-less era by the 2020s.
It now stands out to me when I read science fiction written 70-80 years ago and women are absent. The absence of woman characters in a shooting story would not have stood out to an audience of the 1950s, an era infamous for re-invisibilising women after women’s massive contribution and infiltration of the workplace during the world wars.
Unfortunately, gender equality isn’t always a good thing, not when women do the terrible things previously only open to men. Now, women shoot game for sport.
Notice, too, how much more we know about dinosaurs. I was a little perplexed by the line about some dinosaurs having two brains. So I looked it up and learned that when Bradbury was writing this story, he was using a commonly held view of the time:
So, did dinosaurs have two brains? No, completely false. The two-brain theory was a mere myth. The existence of an enlarged neural canal near the hip region of huge dinosaurs like Stegosaurus was initially thought of as the second brain’s location, to control the motions of the tail. Palaeontologists have found no proof for this claim.Adventure Dinosaurs
Go back another fifty years and we thought dinosaurs dragged their tails on the ground. This wasn’t a bad guess, I mean that’s how modern day lizards get around.
On this exact topic, you may find the following video interesting, about a book on speculative zoology.
Here are some illustrations from a children’s dinosaur book published the same decade as Ray Bradbury published “A Sound Of Thunder”.
THE WATCHMAKER ANALOGY
When the hunters and their guides happen upon a T-Rex, it cries out like a sound of thunder.
Ray Bradbury describes the Tyrannosaurus Rex like this:
It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory and steal mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled.“A Sound Of Thunder”
Ironically, the men treat this magnificent creature like a toy, but when they meet it face to face, it is clear the men themselves are the toys.
What about the ‘watchmaker’s claws’? Watchmakers of yore needed excellent eyesight and dexterous, dainty hands to carry out their minute and detailed work. But there’s more to the comparison. The idea that the universe is designed perfectly to work like a watch came from Newton, Descartes and from a guy called William Paley, who wrote about it in a well-known 1802 book called Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.
Darwin shook this up in 1859 with his Theory of Evolution, which doesn’t argue against the idea that everything works intricately in concert with everything else, but rather removes the intelligent designer.
The men in Bradbury’s story fancy they’ve gone so far back in time that everything in this Late Cretaceous period is completely removed from their American lives in the mid 21st century. This goes against The Principle of Uniformitarianism which Bradbury touches on here, i.e. the idea that all processes in the world happen now as they have in the past.
What Bradbury’s characters fail to understand is that the past is connected to the future. You can’t escape the present by travelling to the past, even if it were scientifically made possible.