Hugosauriad 2.1: The Fog Horn & A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

There are many ways to tell stories with dinosaurs but there are two fantasies about dinosaurs in particular that run through speculative fiction. The first are time travel stories in which people journey back to the age of the dinosaurs. The second is the idea that dinosaurs never went away, that somewhere they still exist. This second story, popularised by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World, has become overtaken by our understanding of both the world and also dinosaurs. In truth, they never did all die out but live among us as birds. Those who think birds lack the terrifying charisma of their Mesozoic grandparents should consider the cassowary: an armoured murder bird that is more than happy to execute severe damage to any upstart mammal.

We’ll meet some other kinds of dinosaur story as we progress, particularly dinosaurs-as-aliens and in the Jurrasic section the more modern fantasy of bringing dinosaurs back by recreating them from fossilised DNA. However, I really wanted to start with two stories that captured the time-travel and still-with-us types of dinosaur stories.

By happy coincidence, there were other issues I wanted to address with these first stories. I wanted some stories that came from the early 1950s but which weren’t picked up by the Hugos. I also wanted to have at least one of the big, big names of science fiction included. I’m not aiming to disparage the relative fame of the writers I have caught up in my prehistoric trawler net but there are many names conspicuous by their absence: Asimov, Heinlein, Clark for this first era for example.

Ray Bradbury is arguably the greatest writers* of speculative fiction most overlooked by the Hugo Awards. That is not to say he has been completely overlooked. Indeed, he’s clearly beloved by many contemporary voters. His most famous novel Fahrenheit 451 won Best Novel for 1954 but in the RETRO Hugo Awards given in 2004 — the Retro Hugo’s being modern awards given by voters for years in which a Worldcon was held but Hugo Awards were not given. Comedian Rachel Bloom’s funny and sexually explicit ode to Ray Bradbury (Fuck Me Ray Bradbury) was a 2011 finalist in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) category. Other Retro-Hugo nominations include short stories from 1939 and 1944. However, in the non-retro awards, Bradbury was only a finalist once, in 1956 for his story “The Dragon” which lost to Arthur C Clarke’s The Star (which coincidentally features a unusual type of SF protagonist that we will meet later in this series: a spacefaring Jesuit priest).

The influence of Bradbury on the Hugo Awards and in science fiction in general can be seen more obliquely in the Best Dramatic Presentation category. Rachel Bloom’s contribution aside, Bradbury’s name appears in multiple places for films and TV show episodes inspired by his stories. The 1954 retro-Hugos include The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which we will get to) and It Came from Outer Space. The main Hugo Awards include the film of Fahrenheit 451 as a finalist in 1967, the film of the Illustrated Man as a finalist in 1970, the TV mini-series of The Martian Chronicles as a finalist in 1981, and the film of Something Wicked This Way Comes as a finalist in 1984. Not surprising then, that the Nebula Awards (The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) have named their award for best dramatic presentation, the Ray Bradbury Award.

Perhaps, Bradbury himself was a writer a little adrift in time. His stories, even when overtly futuristic can be wistful, fantastical or have elements of horror, which can give his stories a more modern feel than some of his contemporaries.

The Fog Horn is a story by Ray Bradbury that was first published in 1951 in the US mainstream magazine The Saturday Evening Post, perhaps most famous for its many Norman Rockwell covers. The story itself is quite thin. The narrator (Johnny) is a lighthouse keeper who shares his duties with an older keeper called McDunn. McDunn tells the narrator about how the fog horn of the lighthouse has, each year, attracted something from the sea:

‘Sounds like an animal, don’t it?’ McDunn nodded to himself. ‘A big lonely animal crying in the night. Sitting here on the edge of ten billion years calling out to the Deeps, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. And the Deeps do answer, yes, they do. You been here now for three months, Johnny, so I better prepare you. About this time of year,’ he said, studying the murk and fog, ‘something comes to visit the lighthouse.’ ‘The swarms of fish like you said?’ ‘No, this is something else. I’ve put off telling you because you might think I’m daft. But tonight’s the latest I can put it off, for if my calendar’s marked right from last year, tonight’s the night it comes. I won’t go into detail, you’ll have to see it yourself. Just sit down there. If you want, tomorrow you can pack your duffel and take the motorboat in to land and get your car parked there at the dinghy pier on the cape and drive on back to some little inland town and keep your lights burning nights, I won’t question or blame you. It’s happened three years now, and this is the only time anyone’s been here with me to verify it. You wait and watch.’

The Fog Horn, Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1 . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Sure enough, the monster returns that very night. Emboldened by previous visits and thinking the that the fog-horn is another one of its kind, the prehistoric creature becomes angry when it only find a building. In its anger, it destroys the lighthouse but the two keepers escape in time.

Bradbury describes the genesis and impact of the story:

‘One night when my wife and I were walking along the beach in Venice. California, where we lived in a thirty-dollar-a-month newlyweds’ apartment, we came upon the bones of the Venice Pier and the struts, tracks, and ties of the ancient roller-coaster collapsed on the sand and being eaten by the sea. ‘What’s that dinosaur doing lying here on the beach?’ I said. My wife, very wisely, had no answer. The answer came the next night when, summoned from sleep by a voice calling, I rose up, listened, and heard the lonely voice of the Santa Monica bay fog horn blowing over and over and over again. Of course! I thought. The dinosaur heard that lighthouse fog horn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur arisen from the deep past, came swimming in for a loving confrontation, discovered it was only a fog horn, and died of a broken heart there on the shore. I leaped from bed, wrote the story, and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post that week, where it appeared soon after under the title ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.’ That story, titled ‘The Fog Horn’ in this collection, became a film two years later. The story was read by John Huston in 1953, who promptly called to ask if I would like to write the screenplay for his film Moby Dick. I accepted, and moved from one beast to the next.

Drunk and In Charge of a Bicycle. Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1 . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

While the plot of the story is thin, the evocative mood of the story and the sense of loss and loneliness elevates the story.

As Bradbury notes, the story went on to inspire the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (the original title when the story was first published). The film version is a monster movie in which a fictional dinosaur is woken from the ice by atomic bombs. The film includes a scene were the monster destroys a lighthouse but is clearly not an attempt to capture the mood of Bradbury’s original story. The monster was designed and animated by the great Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen and Bradbury were not only friends but were also members of the Los Angeles Science Fiction League.

The film was not the first to feature giant animated monsters but it helped established a template for such films that was picked up very quickly, most notably by the Japanese film Gojira aka Godzilla. However, the ripples from Bradbury’s story don’t end with our favourite kaiju. The story’s concept of plaintive signals summoning a force that becomes destructive helped inspire some of the plot elements to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (itself a Hugo finalist in 1987)

A Sound of Thunder brings us face to face with dinosaurs by the method of time-travel. First published in 1952 in the mainstream Collier’s Magazine, the story describes a company that offers safaris into the past so that hunters can shoot dinosaurs. The story conforms more closely to the stereotype of the science-fiction short: there is a lot of didactic explanation of the rules of the set-up, a complication to the scenario and then a mind-bending twist at the end. At the start of the story we are told that a US Presidential election has just finished and the characters are relieved that the benign President Kieth has been elected rather than the ‘militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual’ Deutscher (an unsubtle Hitler substitute). Eckels** is a hopeful hunter/tourist but is somewhat apprehensive of his trip into the past.

After many stern warnings about the dangers of changing anything in the past, Eckels is told that the chosen target (a tyrannosaurus) has been pre-marked by a scout as an animal that will die soon anyway — thus ensuring that when the hunters kill it, there will be no consequences to the future. The rules about potential impacts on the future are so severe that the hunters must stick to a special floating path so as not to interfere in any other way with the past.

Unfortunately, Eckels panics when he sees the T-Rex and runs away, leaving the path by accident. Furious, Travis the leader of the safari threatens to leave Eckels behinds but relents. On returning back to the present, Eckels notices that the spelling on the sign in the Time Safari office has changed:

TYME SEFARI INC.
SEFARIS TU ANY YEER EN THE PAST.
YU NAIM THE ANIMALL.
WEE TAEK YU THAIR.
YU SHOOT ITT.

A Sound of Thunder, Ray. Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1 . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

On the sole of his shoe he finds a single dead butterfly. The death of this one small creature has changed the future. Not only is the spelling unconventional but

“His face was cold. His mouth trembled, asking: ‘Who – who won the presidential election yesterday?’ The man behind the desk laughed. ‘You joking? You know damn well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that damn weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts, by God!’ The official stopped. ‘What’s wrong?’ Eckels moaned. He dropped to his knees. He scrabbled at the golden butterfly with shaking fingers. ‘Can’t we,’ he pleaded to the world, to himself, to the officials, to the Machine, ‘can’t we take it back, can’t we make it alive again? Can’t we start over? Can’t we—’ He did not move. Eyes shut, he waited, shivering. He heard Travis breathe loud in the room; he heard Travis shift his rifle, click the safety catch, and raise the weapon. There was a sound of thunder.”

A Sound of Thunder. Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1 . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Of course, to a modern reader the twists and the set-up are so familiar that the story feels unnecessarily clunky and exposition heavy. The influence of the story (which has been referenced from an episode of The Simpsons to a 1981 song by Duran Duran) has undermined the impact of the story itself.

The popular term from chaos theory known as “The Butterfly Effect” is conceptually different to the impact on timelines of small changes introduced by Bradbury’s story but the wider popular use (often applied to the time travel sense) is clearly influenced by Bradbury’s choice of animal. The chaos theory term began as an example by mathematician Edward Lorenz where he cited that a flap of a sea gull’s winds could be sufficient to change the initial conditions of a model of future weather in such a way that the outcome would be radically different. Lacking a title for a talk at a conference, Lorenz was given the title Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? A concept that will re-appear in this series when Jeff Goldblum turns up in Jurassic Park.

Which of the two stories is more influential? That is a tough choice. The Fog Horn’s influence on monster movies in some ways is at odd with the actual tone and intent of the story. While the connections to the subsequent movie genre are obvious, the tropes existed prior to Bradbury’s story, for example the 1942 Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon The Arctic Giant has a frozen dinosaur coming back to life and terrorising the city. A Sound of Thunder is, I find, a less interesting story in terms of the writing but the exploration of the consequences of time travel have had continuing influence.

The next entry in this series is a story that is effectively a response to A Sound of Thunder, L. Sprague DeCamp’s Gun for Dinosaur.

As always, corrections, insights, additions and comments on any misunderstanding I might have are very welcome.

*[Tolkien would be another candidate but time and nationality is a factor there.]
**[Sorry, the name makes me think of the Goon Show]

6 thoughts on “Hugosauriad 2.1: The Fog Horn & A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

  1. Two great stories that linger in the mind years after you’ve read them. But then, Ray Bradbury’s fiction often has that effect on me.

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  2. I get so fucking sick and tired of reading how Bradbury was neglected by the Hugo awards. All of his great stories were published before the awards started. Except for Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953, a gap year for the early Hugos (which, of course, is WHY it was eligible to receive a Retro Hugo.)

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    1. I’m happy to change the wording there (particularly as I ended up saying he was overlooked in one sentence and saying the opposite in the very next).

      I guess as well that his short stories so often feel more modern than the time they were written that people assume they were written more recently

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  3. Tolkien did receive an award for his fiction, shaped like a rocket, from the Worldcon. It just happened not to be called a Hugo. (He was also nominated in the early ’60s for the “Best All-Time Series” award, although he didn’t win.)

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  4. “Sorry, the name makes me think of the Goon Show”

    He knows what era he’s in, because he’s got it written down on a piece of paper.

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    1. But the piece of paper is in an envelope that says ‘Do not open until Christmas’. If they went far enough back, that could be years

      And now I’m remembering the Goon Show episode Tales of Pliny the Elder:
      “But we are escaped slaves too! Will you join us?”
      (slowly, enunciating each word): “Why? Are… you… coming… apart?”
      (pause) “What year is this?”
      “Forty-five B.C.”
      “Well, that shows how old that gag is.”

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