Many authors use science fiction and fantasy to explore complex and difficult themes and issues that may be invisible in the everyday world. In both Ray Bradbury's “A Sound of Thunder” and Robert Heinlein's “--And He Built a Crooked House--,” the authors use the hypothetical science fiction worlds and technologies that exist only in the abstract to discuss issues and themes that apply directly to the current day. Both Bradbury and Heinlein are masters of the science fiction genre, creating worlds and scenarios that are both whimsical and impactful to the present day.
“A Sound of Thunder” follows a corporation that has mastered the technology of time travel. Instead of keeping a tight control over the technology, the company that controls the technology uses it as a type of safari-like vacation (Bradbury, 2005). The company offers tours to people who want to pay to kill dinosaurs; the dinosaurs that can be killed are clearly marked and participants are warned not to stray from the path or harm any other creature, as there may be unintended consequences (Bradbury, 2005). There are a variety of suggestions that the world has narrowly escaped some major political catastrophe; at one point, one of the characters, Eckels, states: “'Unbelievable A real Time Machine Makes you think, If the election had gone badly yesterday, I might be here now running away from the results. Thank God Keith won. He'll make a fine President of the United States'” (Bradbury, 2005). The character gives the first hint that the world, as it exists in the present in the story, has recently narrowly avoided a major catastrophe.
One of the major themes of “A Sound of Thunder” is the theme of chaos and the interconnectedness of all things. When traveling back in time, the workers at the Time Safari caution everyone to be sure to only kill the animals that are marked for game; if anything else is killed, they warn that the consequences of the accidental kill can be vast and unknowable. Travis, the Safari Guide to the Past, explains: “ The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. 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” (Bradbury, 2005). While Eckels, the man going on the Time Safari, seems to understand the gravity of the potential outcome, he also seems to be apprehensive about the trip as a whole. His foreboding foreshadows his actions later when he sees the Tyrannosaurus Rex; he runs from the path, and Travis, the guide, very nearly makes him stay in the past. Bradbury uses the “sound of thunder” (Bradbury, 2005) to describe the sound of the dinosaur; he uses a repetition of the same sound at the end of the short story to describe the sound of the gunfire as Travis pulls the trigger on the gun and kills Eckels (Bradbury, 2005). In the same way that the reader sees Eckels moving inexorably towards panic during the safari, the death of the butterfly causes the future to move inexorably towards Eckels’ death. Thus, everything is interconnected, and the smallest of actions can have huge and unintended consequences over time.
Robert Heinlein’s “--And He Built A Crooked House--” explores similar themes of chaos and the unintended consequences of actions. Rather than utilizing the time machine and time travel as a mechanism, however, Heinlein’s main character is an architect who builds a house which is twisted throughout the fourth dimension (Heinlein, 1999). In the short story “--And He Built a Crooked House--” the architect explains the concept of twisting and turning space in the fourth dimension, decrying American architecture as being too ordinary and boring (Heinlein, 1999). However, once the house is built-- a tesseract in the fourth dimension-- the house begins to behave in unforeseen and strange ways. The architect explains: “‘Now as I see it, Mrs. Bailey this house, while perfectly stable in three dimensions, was not stable in four dimensions. I had built a house in the shape of an unfolded tesseract; something happened to it, some jar or side thrust, and it collapsed into its normal shape—it folded up.’ He snapped his ﬁngers suddenly. ‘I've got it! The earthquake! From a four-dimensional standpoint this house was like a plane balanced on edge. One little push and it fell over, collapsed along its natural joints into a stable four-dimensional ﬁgure’” (Heinlein, 1999). While the existence of a house like this in the fourth dimension is impossible, Heinlein uses the house to examine the unintended but inevitable chaotic results of meddling in powers and forces that are not completely understood.
The house is representative of chaos and chaotic theory; although chaos and randomness seem overwhelming and incomprehensible, there are reasons why certain events occur. The house acts in the way it does because of mathematical principles, and its eventual disappearance was inevitable because the architect was meddling in forces that he did not understand. Heinlein, in addition to discussing the effects of chaos and chaos theory, was warning about the potential problems that could be caused when human beings meddle with forces that are beyond their understanding and control. Although the Baileys and the architect escape the house before it disappears, the story could easily have been a horror story, with the Baileys and the architect trapped inside the house as it disappeared, locked forever in the fourth dimension with no hope of escape. There appears to be a randomness to the way the house works, but in reality, the architect just did not truly understand the mathematics and the forces that he was dealing with when he constructed the home.
Both “A Sound of Thunder” and “--And He Built a Crooked House--” examine potential concepts and futures that are not possible with the technologies that exist today, but they ask important questions about the nature of knowledge and humanity. Both caution the reader about the importance of being cautious when interacting with forces and situations that are not completely understood; given the fact that both these stories were written in the time period of the atomic bomb and atomic testing, this is not an unusual or unexpected theme. During the mid-twentieth century, science and technology were growing much faster than humanity knew how to cope with. Science fiction writers, especially the great science fiction writers like Bradbury and Heinlein, examined the potential pitfalls of science and technology-- and the chaos of unintended consequences-- through their science fiction pieces.
Bradbury, R. (2005). R is for rocket. Hornsea, England: PS Publishing.
Heinlein, R. (1999). The fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Tor.