The Butterfly Effect
When I asked for recommendations at the start of this little sci-fi series, nearly everyone who replied mentioned Ray Bradbury, so I promptly acquired Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1 – a nice self-explanatory title if ever I heard one! There are 100 stories in this massive book (apparently he published over 500 stories in total) plus an introduction by Bradbury himself, in which he kindly tells us how amazingly exceptional and talented he is. A quick search on the internet provided innumerable lists of ‘best Bradbury stories’, many of which are included in this collection, resulting in my choice for this week’s…
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A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
When time-travel becomes a reality, a company sets up hunting trips that go back to the age of the dinosaurs. But they must operate under strict rules to ensure that they do nothing in the past that may affect the future – their present. And so they carefully research the animals to ensure that their customers are only allowed to kill them just before they were due to die anyway. But on one particular trip to hunt and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex, one of the hunters, Eckles, is so overcome at the sight of the monstrous creature that he panics and steps off the path, unintentionally killing a butterfly…
Eckles glanced across the vast office at a mass and tangle, a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes, at an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue. 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.
The first remarkable thing about this story is that it precedes by several years the use of the phrase ‘Butterfly Effect’ to describe the implication within Chaos Theory that small changes in initial conditions lead to large differences in later states. It’s endlessly interesting (to me) to see the perpetual intertwining of sci-fi and real science, and how the two have cross-propagated over the years. Many scientists acknowledge how influenced they have been by sci-fi – either inspired as a child to become a scientist, or later, feeling the challenge of seeing if they can prove or even replicate some of the ideas of the sci-fi writers. In reverse, the best of the sci-fi writers work within the realms of the possible, however remotely, and play with the cutting edge ideas coming out of contemporary science. I don’t know if there is a direct link between this story and the naming of the ‘Butterfly Effect’ but it’s a signal of how sci-fi and science are often following parallel paths, and a sign of how important imagination is in both.
The jungle was high and the jungle was broad and the jungle was the entire world forever and forever. Sounds like music and sounds like flying tents filled the sky, and those were pterodactyls soaring with cavernous gray wings, gigantic bats out of a delirium and a night fever.
The second remarkable thing is how often the basic premise of the story has been repeated in subsequent sci-fi – it’s often difficult to remember when reading something that sounds a little clichéd that it would have seemed a much more original idea at the time. I found that Bradbury perhaps explained a little too much and didn’t leave space between the ‘facts’ for the reader’s imagination to run free, but again I suspect this is a result of my familiarity with the sci-fi paradoxes of time-travel and the dangers of changing the past, a familiarity I doubt I would have had to the same degree back in 1952 when the story was first published.
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 steel mesh.
The descriptive writing is little short of brilliant, conveying strong visual images and building an atmosphere of horror as the Tyrannosaur approaches. Eckles’ terror becomes entirely understandable and as his panic disrupts the planned execution of the dinosaur, the hunt descends into a frantic and bloody scramble for self-preservation. And, as we suspected, on their return to their own time, the death of the butterfly has caused the world to change…
An excellent introduction to Bradbury’s short stories – now I just need to find time to read the other 99!
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