Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ray Bradbury, A Thunderous Philosophy

           Ray Bradbury’s death this year coincided with the 50th anniversary of his masterful story “A Sound of Thunder.”  In it, a hunter goes back in time to kill a dinosaur, accidently leaves the path, crushes a butterfly, and changes history.
            Reading this when I was young, the story had the same impact as seeing the ending of the original Planet of the Apes (which had me jumping up and pointing at the TV.  "Oh my God, Oh my God, they've been . . .").  It opened my mind to previously inconceivable “what if” possibilities.  This world doesn’t have to be the way it is.  History might not be inevitable.  I knew instinctively these science works were philosophical works.  In fiction, the writers were presenting challenging, revelatory, concepts. 
            “A Sound of Thunder” plays with the idea of “the butterfly theory,” which is epitomized by the question “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”  Complex, large, systems can be altered by small changes. Examples of this seem to be everywhere.  In college my roommate, a Physics major, liked to quote an adage about gravity, “when you throw a stone, you move the stars.”  Historians recite the proverb about Richard III:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horsehoe nail.

            Numerous works of art explore the tremendous world-changing effects small actions can have.  For some, this inspires.  As we head into the next presidential election, I’m sure this will be one of the repeated arguments for going to the polls.  However, it also suggests you cannot know what the effects will be.  There is no easily discernible cause and effect.
            Ultimately, Bradbury's story seems philosophically aligned with the tale that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character tells in Charlie Wilson’s WarThere's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. The boy got a horse" And the Zen master says, "we'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful.” . . .
            Actions have consequences, but the consequences can’t be determined by the actions.  This was a fascinating idea to the boy I was; this is a terrifying idea to the man I’ve become.

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