The title to Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder” implies absolutely nothing as one begins to read it, and its meaning remains vague even after it has been read. The opening of the story, however, provides sufficient context to allow for an educated assessment of the type of plot to follow, and the genre’s history or pattern allows for an equally educated assessment regarding the tone. Science fiction stories that involve time travel rarely fail to conclude with the negative ramifications of that oft-imagined luxury. The beginning to “A Sound of Thunder” is no exception, with the story’s “protagonist,” Eckels, entering that domain best left alone but determined to exploit the opportunity. At the entrance to the office in which Eckels is about to enter is a sign:
TIME SAFARI, INC.
SAFARIS TO ANY YEAR IN THE PAST.
YOU NAME THE ANIMAL.
WE TAKE YOU THERE.
YOU SHOOT IT.
Bradbury has established a setting and a context for the story that follows. It involves time travel, and it involves the killing of an animal that exists, or existed, in another era. Again, anyone reading this science fiction story would presumably anticipate the development of a plot that culminates with a lesson regarding tampering with history. An oft-entertained notion (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine had been published in 1895), time travel has long mystified authors and others who enjoy contemplating “what-ifs” such as the way history would have changed had someone been able to travel back in time and alter events by killing a particular individual or investing in a particular stock, and so on. The opportunity to travel back in time for the purpose of killing a dinosaur – and, not just any dinosaur, but the most ferocious of the bunch, a Tyrannosaurus Rex (“the most incredible monster in history”) – is too exciting to ignore. Those familiar with Ray Bradbury, however, will likely anticipate a chain of events that will not end happily, especially given the warnings provided by the company’s official, who quite conspicuously attempts to talk Eckels out of making this journey:
“’We don't want anyone going who'll panic at the first shot. Six Safari leaders were killed last year, and a dozen hunters. We're here to give you the severest thrill a real hunter ever asked for. Traveling you back sixty million years to bag the biggest game in all of Time. Your personal check's still there. Tear it up.’Mr. Eckels looked at the check. His fingers twitched.”
Bradbury continues, as Eckels joins up with the small group making this hunting expedition into the distant past, to provide indicators that the dangers are many and real, and that the potential ramifications of a failure to follow instructions extend well-beyond philosophical considerations. Describing the metal anti-gravity levitating path upon which the hunters must remain, Travis, the experienced guide, explains it purpose:
“Its purpose is to keep you from touching this world of the past in any way. Stay on the Path. Don't go off it. I repeat. Don't go off. For any reason! If you fall off, there's a penalty. And don't shoot any animal we don't okay. . .We don't want to change the Future. We don't belong here in the Past. The government doesn't like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species."
Bradbury has now provided sufficient background to proceed into the anticipated violation of the rules of procedure his expert, Travis, has expounded. The conversations between Eckels and Travis and “the man behind the desk” indicate that the former is a little uncertain about himself, but is determined to kill a dinosaur. As the story progresses, and Eckels disintegrates emotionally even before realizing he has inadvertently altered history, Bradbury continues to provide details that ensure the reader is cognizant that mankind’s latest efforts at manipulating nature and history have once again resulted in disaster.