Saturday

Going Big: The Prophetic Voice in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”

Near the beginning of Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “A Sound of Thunder,” one encounters perhaps the most unabashedly lyrical passage ever written about time travel:
Out of chars and ashes, out of dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the old years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irish-black, wrinkles vanish; all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning. A touch of a hand might do it, the merest touch of a hand.
The story, set in the year 2055 and in the Jurassic period, is about a time-traveling safari for big game hunters. I hesitate to reveal any more about the plot – no spoilers here – but if you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it more highly.

The story deals not only with the scientific paradox of time travel – a topical concern in the post-Einstein world – but also with questions of fate, evolution, and the origins of evil. Revisiting it recently, I was awestruck by Bradbury’s thunderous prophetic voice. Like Cormac McCarthy, Bradbury uses rhetorical devices such as poetic anaphora to achieve a soaring world-historical diction, one that couldn’t be further removed from the understated, small-bore voice we’ve come to associate with so much of contemporary short fiction. Consider the following passage:
‘. . . 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 prints, 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!’
The rhetorical grandiosity comes at a cost – the dialog is neither natural nor realistic, and the overall plot demands an enormous suspension of disbelief – but it doesn’t matter. This is a big story, with big ideas, big, sweeping descriptions, and a big heart. That makes sense, because it’s animated by a very big topic: the history of the world and humanity’s role in determining it. 

And the amazing thing is, it’s a successful story. It gets at something central to being alive at the opening of the geological epoch scientists have dubbed the Anthropocene.

I first read “A Sound of Thunder” many years ago, when I was in seventh grade. Picking it up again, I was pleased to find it every bit as powerful as I'd remembered. By going big, Bradbury created a story with a reach and impact most short fiction can’t even come close to achieving.

That’s refreshing, and worthy of admiration. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to lament the moribund state of contemporary literature if more of us would throw caution to the wind -- and go big like Bradbury!