The Butterfly Effect: An Exploration of Chaos Theory Themes within Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”

When Ray Bradbury first penned his short story “A Sound of Thunder” in 1952, the terms “chaos theory” and “butterfly effect” had yet to be coined.  He knew nothing of the science of nonlinear dynamics, yet he managed to portray its ideology in this futuristic, time-travel odyssey.  In the 1960’s, Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, discovered that the results from his experiments in complex weather systems varied greatly by making infinitesimal changes in the initial data.   This discovery brought about the basic belief of chaos theorists, which is the prevailing theme from “A Sound of Thunder”; small variations in the initial conditions of a dynamical system can produce large variations in the results.   Bradbury presents the basic tenets of this theorem in more detail by giving examples of the how the butterfly effect might take place in this fictional situation, showing that every action has its repercussions, and explaining how the magnitude of the action has no bearing on its eventual impact.

The examples from the application of nonlinear dynamics in Bradbury’s story are abundant.  Through the science fiction concept of time-travel, the characters of the short story participate in a hunting safari 65 million years in the past to kill the ultimate target – Tyrannosaurus Rex.  This transport across the timeline gives the author the platform to prove his theorem.  When the main character, a man simply named Eckles, steps from the floating path that protects the fragile, prehistoric environment and crushes a butterfly, Bradbury introduces the stimulus for his experiment.  Upon the characters’ return to the future, we see that this small variation in the initial composition has brought about major changes in the world in which the characters reside.  We see through Eckles’ eyes the differences between what he sees now and the place he just left.  He first notices that the room’s décor has changed, and the air has a different smell to it.  Then, he looks at the sign on the entrance.  Because of his tiny misstep, the whole English language has changed.  The final change we find out about in this new reality is that the beloved new President of the United States, Keith, did not win the election in this version of time, but was defeated by the socialist, Deutscher.

From the moment he steps through the front door of Time Safari, Inc., Eckles is told that for every decision he makes there will be a consequence.  The first way this is presented is in the form of a fine.  The safari guide, Travis, tells Eckles that if he disobeys in anyway while on the hunting trip, then he will be faced with a $10,000 fine for his actions.  While $10,000 may not sound like an exorbitant amount of money today for such an egregious offense as interfering with the space-time continuum, that amount would equal roughly $81, 789.06 in 2010 when accounting for inflation.  I believe Bradbury meant for the fine to sound like a stiff penalty when he wrote his piece.  Eckles critical offense occurs when he kills the butterfly, and in the end, Eckels is murdered because he, ironically, failed to learn the simple principle of cause and effect.

Bradbury’s assertion that the scale of the stimulus has no bearing on the outcome is put forth very plainly in the choice of creatures offered in the story.  He juxtaposes the gargantuan, terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex against the miniscule, hapless butterfly, yet it is not the death of the Tyrannosaurus that creates the resultant chaos of the trip back in time.  Instead, it is the end of the butterfly’s life that brings about the alterations in the characters’ world.  The idea is also repeated in Eckles murder at the end of the story.  Because Eckles smashed to butterfly, he was assassinated by Travis, showing that cause is not indicative of effect.

“A Sound of Thunder” was a revolutionary piece of science fiction in its era.  It introduced concepts that were a decade ahead of their time.  Looking back at the piece with almost 60 years of reflection makes me think that if Edward Lorenz is considered the father of chaos theory, then Ray Bradbury should, at least, be regarded as its eccentric uncle.

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About Richard Howk

Fiction author with my first novel, Pariah, available December 2nd.
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