Young People Read Old SFF

The Man Who Traveled in Elephants

Robert A. Heinlein

Young People Read Old SFF

15 Mar, 2018

Heinlein was a significant enough author he gets two bites at the golden apple. For the most part he was a hard sf writer, more likely to send his protagonists off on a rocket or through a hole in space and time than to try his hand at more Ray Bradburyesque themes. The Man Who Travelled in Elephants” by Robert A. Heinlein would be one of the rare exceptions, his attempt at a fable. My Young People seemed to approve of The Menace from Earth”, the previous Heinlein I offered them. What will they think of this example of his work?

A bit weird, a bit familiar, a bit not. I’m from a town small and out-of-the-way enough that I remember fairs a lot like some of the country fairs described, if much smaller and on their last legs by the time I attended. But then there were a bunch of references that didn’t click with me, because they were too esoterically American or too old and haven’t been transmitted through old movies and TV shows.

I suspected something was up as soon as the bus had the accident. It soon became obvious what was going on. But that didn’t deter me, it was still generally pleasant to read. It was calming, and a bit ethereal. This story feels like it was all nostalgia when it was written and so it is doubly-removed nostalgia now. Stuff from the generation of my grandparents or maybe their parents.


I guess I just don’t quite see the point of this story? Other than the twist, it doesn’t feel particularly speculative, it more reminds me of the classics” I was required to read in high school. I didn’t enjoy that kind of story then, and I don’t enjoy it now.

Unfortunately, the twist has been done too many times for it to be surprising. I was pretty sure the guy was dead after the bus crash, before he’d even reached the fair, which kind of spoiled the reveal of the story. My only question was if this was an afterlife or more of a Sixth Sense-style setup, and I figured that out pretty quickly too.

I appreciated that the characters felt decently developed, and the details of the imaginary animals that the couple created to accompany them on their travels, but it wasn’t enough to get me engaged in the story. I didn’t dislike it, I just didn’t care that much.

I think even if I hadn’t predicted the twist it still wouldn’t have been that interesting to me. It’s just not a style of story I have ever cared for, and a twist at the end isn’t enough to change that.


It’s hard to review this story without turning it into a spoiler so I’ll just say that I love the way Heinlein wrote the exact moment when the reader realizes the conceit of the story. My impression of Heinlein has everything to do with Stranger In a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and his other similar works, and I was surprised to read such a sweet, almost maudlin (but not quite) story by him. The magical realism element reminds me of another that was referenced in the book I’m currently reading: optography as described by Jules Verne. I suppose Heinlein’s story would be sort of the mind’s eye” version of that rather than someone literally seeing something, but I wonder if Heinlein had any knowledge of that concept or if it influenced his thought process in writing this story at all. I also really enjoy the phrase traveled in elephants” as it represents the couple’s unique relationship within the story but also just generally as a synonym for make believe or imagination. The way that Heinlein wove that in to the plot was very clever as well. Perhaps I liked this story so much because it’s what I hope happens to all of us in the end.


This story was fairly boring, but also sad. I found most of the story boring — as soon as they had the accident and no one was hurt, I knew that the main character was dead. Then came the long wait for him to see Martha in the afterlife. Apart from that, the story was filled with a very specific nostalgia for American county fairs and road trips of the mid-20th century.It’s a curious thing to read a work filled with nostalgia from a past I know nothing about. I imagine it’s like sitting through a bad Norm Foster play — leaning into its quaintness so far as to put the audience to sleep.On the other hand, the pre-death portion of the story was sad. Missing someone who is gone after having been very happy with them and spent a lot of time with them is a very bittersweet feeling — perhaps more sad to me based on personal experience.I did think that Johnny’s heaven would be the perfect hell for many people, me included. The crowd, the noise, too many smells, too much heat, feet hurting all the time, and never being quite able to see anything fully. (I’ve always been short.)Verdict: Meh. As sickly sweet and as nourishing as John’s cotton candy.