The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

WHO WROTE IT: Ray Bradbury, of course! You probably only know him because you were forced to read his dystopian sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451 in high school. But the dude was one of the most prolific writers of his time, cranking out 27 novels and over 600 short stories. “Threaded throughout his writing and his interviews,” as Meaghan Wagner noted, “is an unassailable sense of wonder, which, coupled with his boundless imagination, strikes a chord with his loyal readership.”

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Ray Bradbury in 1975. Photo by Alan Light.

Bradbury mostly wrote speculative fiction—his imagination was broader and his curiosity deeper than perhaps any other writer alive—but he also wrote mainstream fiction (the coming-of-age novel Dandelion Wine, for example) and nonfiction (a fictionalized memoir, Green Shadows, White Whale, published in 1992). I’ve read a few dozen Bradbury stories, and let me tell ya: nobody else can create a sense of atmosphere (be it wonder or horror) like ol’ Ray. There is no other writer who makes me feel guiltier about my lack of productivity (and my habit of playing video games). And yet…no other writer makes me more determined to write for the joy of it, and nothing else.

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: It says something about Bradbury’s crossover appeal that “A Sound of Thunder” wasn’t even published in a sci-fi magazine, but in the June 1952 issue of Collier’s, a magazine more known for investigative journalism than literary fiction.

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Yeah, the cover doesn’t exactly scream “time-traveling dinosaur hunters” to me.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: It’s the year 2055. Time travel is real, and while not exactly affordable for the average citizen, it has become a commercial endeavor. A company called Time Safari, Inc. offers wealthy sportsmen the chance to travel back in time and hunt dangerous megafauna. One such sportsman, a mild-mannered man named Eckels, has coughed up $10,000 to travel back to the Cretaceous Period and hunt Tyrannosaurus rex. To prevent changing the future or incurring any time paradoxes, there are strict rules Time Safari, Inc. and its clients must observe:

  1. The time machine cannot return to any particular point in time that it’s already visited once (so hunters don’t meet themselves, and animals aren’t killed twice).
  2. Hunters stay on a levitating path to avoid interacting with the environment in any way.
  3. Guides visit the area before the hunt starts and select animals which would have soon died of natural causes, and whose deaths will not, therefore, change the future in any way.

I’m not going to summarize further, because (a) that should be more than enough to get you interested in this story and (b) this is such a good story that no mere summary can do it justice and you should read it yourself and get your mind blown. Oh, and (c) there’s a twist ending.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: What happens if, by interacting with the past, you somehow change the future?

“A Sound of Thunder” never mentions the term “butterfly effect” (that would be coined a decade later by Edward Norton Lorenz, who was one of the pioneers of chaos theory). But it’s the elephant in the room, the vehicle which Bradbury’s story uses to get us from Point A to Point B. Bradbury writes about time as if it were the fourth dimension, something that could theoretically be moved through like any other medium. (This is different from the style of time travel proposed by Michael Crichton in his 1999 novel Timeline, where the characters don’t actually move through time itself but simply slide into a parallel universe.) The slightest change made to the past—the most seemingly insignificant interaction with the environment of the Cretaceous Period, for example—could have world-spanning, game-changing implications for the development of life on Earth…and the human race.

You know what this looks like. You’ve seen it. Even if you’ve never read Bradbury’s story, you’ve probably seen The Simpsons episode “Treehouse of Horror V”—specifically the segment “Time and Punishment,” where Homer’s lamebrained attempt to fix a toaster sends him back to the Age of Dinosaurs, where he proceeds to screw up the future in all sorts of ways.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: Dude…it’s a Bradbury story. And it happens to involve the butterfly effect, which His Infinite Atmospheric-ness Bradbury writes about with chilling detail and horrifying clarity. The story also happens to involve dinosaurs.

Hunting dinosaurs.

With huge freakin’ elephant guns.

HELL yeah.

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Kinda reminds me of video games I’ve played…aw, crap.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Seems like all the science fiction that comes out these days is about artificial intelligence, or cyberspace, or social justice, or the environment. I don’t know about you, but those topics get pretty old after a while. Every so often, it’s nice to read a story from the 1950s, when computers were the size of buildings and nobody ever thought they’d be capable of killing us, when the most dangerous weapon around was the hydrogen bomb, when the greatest evil on the face of the earth was communism, and when aliens were telepathic humanoids instead of tentacled monstrosities that like to shove eggs down our necks. Sometimes it’s fun to read a story that’s about guns, and dinosaurs, and hunting, and time travel, and paradoxes, and the butterfly effect, and doesn’t make any sort of heavy-handed social commentary.

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Goodness knows we get enough heavy-handed social commentary on the news, in movies, and on TV.

That’s the great thing about Bradbury: he’s like a limo driver who takes you to Jurassic Park or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory instead of the bar or the park or another mundane destination. He takes the wheel and sets your imagination soaring. His works are stories you can get lost in and have honest fun with, not ones that were specifically written to challenge your beliefs or tweak your conscience. Bradbury himself (perhaps self-deprecatingly) referred to himself as a fantasy writer, and said that the only piece of sci-fi he’d ever done was Fahrenheit 451. He had a broad definition of science fiction that let him write about anything and everything that sparked his interest, and that incessant lust for wonder and adventure comes through strongly in his prose. He’s a writer’s writer, one who doesn’t just entertain, but captivates and inspires.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: I read it here, in this compilation of Bradbury stories (imaginatively named Bradbury Stories).

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If you’d rather not pay Bradbury’s estate or the publishing house the royalties they’re due, then you can find “A Sound of Thunder” on Genius.

Good. Now go read it. And then (as Bradbury himself would probably scold you), get writing!