Time Travel Short Story Review

A Sound of Thunder
by Ray Bradbury

Plot Summary

On the eve of an American presidential election, a party of rich businessmen undertake a time travel safari to the past to hunt dinosaurs. While the organizers have taken every precaution to minimize the impact of the hunting party on the past, one member violates the rules and leaves the designated path. Upon their return to the present the group finds that the world has been drastically altered by the seemingly innocuous death of a pre-historic butterfly.


Originally published in the June 28 1952 edition of Collier's magazine, Bradbury’s seminal tale of a hunting safari sent back in time to kill a dinosaur has been reprinted more than two dozen times in collections and anthologies. A film adaptation of Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder will make it to the big screen after much delay on September 2nd, 2005 almost two years after it was filmed. The movie features Ed Burns as Travis Ryer, the leader of the safari and Ben Kingsley as Charles Hatton the owner of the safari company.

The encounter with the Tyrannosaurus forms the heart of the story with Bradbury’s eloquent prose transporting the reader along with the hunting expedition sixty-million years into the past.

“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 tone of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangles out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head it self, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight. It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons.”

Bradbury’s tale serves not only to entertain but also to speculate on the dangers of time travel. His illustration of a ripple effect on the timeline caused by a seemingly unrelated events over a long period of time is not only demonstrated by the climax of the story, but is also explained in the context of the story. The following passage is an exchange between Travis, the leader of the safari and Eckels one of the businessmen.

"All right," Travis continued, "say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?"


"And all the families of the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice!"

"So they're dead," said Eckels. "So what?"

"So what?" Travis snorted quietly. "Well, what about the foxes that'll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam's grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!"

While Bradbury does an excellent job illustrating the point, he tends to over simplify the ripple effect since he assumes the timeline to be static and that by removing the mouse from the equation a void is created that multiplies up the timeline. It seems more likely that true effect might be equally as dramatic, but unfolding over time in a much more dynamic way. Using Bradbury’s example a lack of mice might mean something other than the fox evolves and thrives on the land, or perhaps the fox adapts to another food source altogether.

The climax of the story involves the return of the hunting party to the office of Time Safari Inc. which still oddly enough still exists, but the language has evolved differently.

But the immediate thing was the sign painted on the office wall, the same sign he had read earlier today on first entering. Somehow, the sign had changed:


More importantly they discover that the presidential election has been influenced and that the fascist candidate Deutscher was elected president instead of the moderate candidate.

While dramatically effective, the ending virtually contradicts Bradbury’s earlier example of the ripple effect and the mouse. The ending suggests that while the players remain the same, namely the presidential candidates Keith and Deutscher, that their environment and the evolution of the human language has been influenced.

It's an interesting coincidence that Bradbury chose a butterfly to symbolize the chaotic effect multiplied over time. The term Butterfly Effect did not originate with this tale, but rather was coined after MIT research meteorologist Edward Lorenz who discovered in the early 1960s that small variations in his computer model caused wildly divergent results. Lorenz later went on to write a seminal paper on Chaos Theory based on his experience.

Bradbury's butterfly and dinosaur hunting time travelers did have another influence on popular culture though, namely The Simpsons and the epsiode "Time and Punishment" which was part of Season 6's Treehouse of Horror V. In the episode Homer accidently discovers time travel when he jams a fork in a broken toaster trying to fix it. Homer's first unplanned trip to the past takes him to prehistoric times.

Homer arrives in the dinosaur age.

Homer: I've gone back to the time when dinosaurs weren't just confined to zoos!

A pterodactyl flies overhead, and Homer begins to panic.

Homer: Aah! OK, don't panic -- remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.

Homer remembers Abe with hair and a tuxedo

Abe: If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.

Homer: Fine. As long as I stand perfectly still and don't touch anything, I won't destroy the future.

a giant mosquito flies in threatening to bite Homer

Homer: Stupid bug! You go squish now! [swats it]

Homer realizes what he's done.

Homer: But that was just one little insignificant mosquito. That can't change the future, right? Right?

Homer poses the question to a passing sloth-like creature, who grunts "I dunno." The toast pops and Homer finds himself back in his basement where he find himself in a world where Ned is the supreme ruler and Big Brother is watching. After nearly being lobotomized Homer escapes back to his basement.

Homer: I gotta go back...fix future!

Homer finds the toaster and pushes the handle sending him to the pre-historic past

Homer: This time I'm not going to touch a thing. [a Tyrannosaurus attacks him]
Aah! [hopping away avoiding stepping on plants and other things] Mustn't crush...mustn't kill...made it! [a fish walks out of the water and Homer falls and sits on it] Ohh, I wish, I wish I hadn't killed that fish.

The toaster pops and Homer is transported back to the present. Each time he returns to his own time the present has changed in different ways.

Neither Bradbury's time travellers nor the accident prone Homer J. Simpson could predict what consquences their actions would have, but suffice it to say that all actions have consequences big and small. If you are time travelling it might be wise to stay on the path to avoid changing history, but looking forward we should do the opposite. There is no telling how one small action can change the world for the better. As an example, Rosa Parks likely knew the immediate consequences of her actions of refusing to give up her seat on a bus that fateful day on December 1, 1955, but not the far reaching consequences that would come out of it.

As long as we're not time travelling to the past anytime soon I say Stupid bug, you go squish now!

©2004 - A. Taylor
Review Posted: 2004-01-26
Review Updated: 2005-08-18
Links Updated: 2005-09-02

R E L A T E D   L I N K S

"A Sound of Thunder" - OneBee
Maverick blogger Jameson Simmons has thumbed his nose at copyright laws and corporate lawyers and provided a PDF version to the text of Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder here.

For the record, as an aspiring writer I am not in favour of depriving writers of royalities by violating copyright. Having said that, I am not opposed to providing a link to something you can find through a quick search of google. Let your conscience be the guide whether or not you steal from that nice Mr. Bradbury.

Broken link fixed - 2007-11-12

A Sound of Thunder - The Movie
My own review of the movie based on Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder. It was released in North America theatres in September 2005 and on DVD in March 2006.


Ray Bradbury - Celebrating A Lifetime of Imagination and Wonder
Ray Bradbury's official website contains information on his books, a personal diary page, newsletter sign-up page, message boards and some video clips of the master's own home.


Treehouse of Horror V -- Crime and Punishment
Springfield Nuclear Power Plant www.snpp.com is a great all around resource for The Simpsons. The episode guide for Treehouse of Horror V features goofs, quotes, and scene descriptions.


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