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waldo

waldo a remote-controlled device for handling objects, named after Waldo F. Jones, a fictional inventor described by Robert Heinlein in a science-fiction story.

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Waldo

Waldoforeshadow, shadow •Faldo •accelerando, bandeau, Brando, glissando, Orlando •eyeshadow •aficionado, amontillado, avocado, Bardo, Barnardo, bastinado, bravado, Colorado, desperado, Dorado, eldorado, incommunicado, Leonardo, Mikado, muscovado, Prado, renegado, Ricardo, stifado •commando •eddo, Edo, meadow •crescendo, diminuendo, innuendo, kendo •carbonado, dado, Feydeau, gambado, Oviedo, Toledo, tornado •aikido, bushido, credo, Guido, Ido, libido, lido, speedo, teredo, torpedo, tuxedo •widow • dildo • window •Dido, Fido, Hokkaidocondo, rondeau, rondo, secondo, tondo •Waldo •dodo, Komodo, Quasimodo •escudo, judo, ludo, pseudo, testudo, Trudeau •weirdo • sourdough • fricandeau •tournedos • Murdo

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Waldo

Waldo

Robert A. Heinlein 1942

Author Biography

Plot Summary

Characters

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

Further Reading

Originally published in 1942 in the magazine Astounding, “Waldo” is one of the few stories in which Heinlein tackles magic rather than concentrating on hard science. In this story, humanity’s refusal to sufficiently test new technologies leads to a debilitating exhaustion in humans which in turn causes a series of power failures in a “fail-safe” system. Waldo, a crippled genius who lives in a house that orbits the earth, discovers that the only way to cure the power failures is to treat the affected power receptors with magic. Waldo reaches into the “Other World” and grasps power from that other dimension. Accordingly, the broken parts work again, but in an unexpected way: they no longer use radiant energy and, even though they are made of a rigid metal alloy, they begin waving like the tentacles of a sea anemone.

While Heinlein utilizes his favorite themes in this piece (self-reliance and independence), his warning about hidden dangers in new technology seems somewhat unusual. Heinlein, and the other authors of the “Golden Age” of science fiction (notably Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov), generally glorify technology as a kind of savior of the human race. However, in several of the main characters, Heinlein reiterates his insistence on the independence of the individual. Waldo tries to live his own life without any reliance on others; Dr. Grimes and Gramps Schneider live in their own ways and are not concerned with how other people see them. The ultimate concentration of the story, then, continues Heinlein’s theme of self-reliance.

The mechanical “hands” or series of mechanical joints used today in engineering and mechanical puppetry are now called “waldoes” after this Heinlein story, demonstrating the significant impact that Heinlein’s works have enjoyed over the years.

Author Biography

Born on July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri, Robert Anson Heinlein was one of seven children. He finished high school in 1924, spent a year at the University of Missouri and then entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis, majoring in naval science. He graduated in the top ten percent of his class in 1929, moving to active duty in the Navy on destroyers and experimental aircraft carriers. However, he contracted tuberculosis in 1934 while serving as a gunnery officer on the U.S.S. Lexington and was forced to retire from the military.

For the next five years, Heinlein attended graduate school (which he was forced to abandon due to further health problems), architecture, real estate, silver mining, and politics before discovering an ad in Thrilling Wonder Stories which offered a fifty dollar prize for the best piece of amateur fiction. Heinlein wrote the short story “Life-Line” in four days. He considered the story too good for the “pulp” magazine (literally, a magazine printed on pulp, or poor quality, paper) that had placed the ad and sent the story to John W. Campbell at Astounding Science-Fiction where it was ultimately published. For the rest of his life, Heinlein maintained that he did not write for art, but for cash.

Over the course of his career, however, the quality of his writing garnered him four Hugo awards. In 1975, the Science Fiction Writers of America presented him with a special Grand Master Nebula Award for lifetime achievement. Heinlein’s works are usually divided into three categories: short fiction, juvenile novels, and adult novels. The juvenile novels, however, should not be dismissed merely as children’s literature—the theme of self-reliance and independence that he uses in the juvenile fiction appears in his other fiction as well.

Considered one of the “Big Three” authors of science fiction (alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov), Heinlein wrote more than thirty novels and story collections. He was influential in the development of NASA’s space suits and was a guest commentator during the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

Perhaps his best-known work is Stranger in a Strange Land, which has enjoyed immense popularity since its publication in 1961. By the end of his career he was interested in bringing most, if not all, of his fictional characters together into one “multiverse” by developing a theory that strong fiction writers did not just create believable stories but actually created alternate universes or realities. Heinlein includes characters from his own works in this multiverse. Many critics praise his vivid and engaging depiction of this world, his ability to create characters that live and breathe on the page.

Plot Summary

Problem One

James Stevens, the Chief Traffic Engineer of North American Power Air (NAPA), is summoned to his superior’s office because NAPA, the company that supplies power to air vehicles as well as the cities, suffers several unexplainable power breakdowns. “DeKalb receptors,” components that receive the radiant power, utilize the power for the air-cars. Scientists proclaim the deKalbs infallible, and yet they have been failing in commercial freighters for some time. NAPA cannot figure out what causes the problem. The head physicist of NAPA, Dr. Rambeau, insists that the deKalbs cannot fail and that the engineers have somehow “operated them incorrectly” yet the engineering department cannot figure out just what they’re doing wrong.

NAPA is completely puzzled, so Dr. Stevens suggests that they contact Waldo, a bitter genius who is particularly hateful toward NAPA, to solve the problem for them. The suggestion is met with some dismay, but Gleason, Dr. Stevens’s superior, admits that he’s already contacted Waldo, but that Waldo is “still sore over the Hathaway patents” and doesn’t wish to help NAPA. The people at NAPA are worried about the failure of the deKalbs in the air vehicles because the same technology is used to power cities, and NAPA is afraid that while the power to the cities hasn’t yet failed, it’s only a matter of time until it does. Because of these worries, Gleason tells Stevens to use his connections to contact Waldo.

Problem Two

Stevens meets with Doc Grimes, an eccentric doctor who dresses in anti-radiation suits and is Waldo’s only friend. Grimes berates Stevens for his out- of-shape condition and speculates that the reason for Stevens’s out-of-shape condition is not solely overwork, as Stevens maintains, but that humanity cannot “pour every sort of radiant energy through the human system year after year and not pay for it.” Grimes’s thesis is that the radiant energy that NAPA uses for power is dangerous to humans. Grimes maintains that even though it was tested before being put into widespread use, the power source was not tested long enough to determine whether it would be dangerous to humans who were exposed to it every day, day in and day out. Grimes hypothesizes that this radiant energy is running down the human race—people act tired and thus don’t exercise enough. He has kept records for years, noting that in athletic events, the all-time records are no longer getting broken and the top athletes of the present day could not compete with athletes from previous times—humankind is getting weaker physically instead of continuing to strengthen and improve.

Stevens finally asks Grimes to introduce him to Waldo. Grimes considers Waldo’s disorder, myasthenia gravis, which affects the muscles. Essentially, Waldo is as relatively weak as a newborn baby—he cannot move in Earth’s gravity and so he has moved to his own space station and moves with relative ease in an anti-gravity environment. Grimes agrees to take Stevens up to Freehold, Waldo’s space station, to meet Waldo and attempt to convince him to take on the problem of the failing deKalb receptors. Once at Freehold, Grimes convinces Waldo not only to take on the NAPA problem, but also to devise a way to fix the problem that will do away with the radiant power that Grimes believes is causing the tired and rundown feeling in the human race.

Finding a Solution

Stevens returns to NAPA only to discover that one set of deKalbs has been miraculously fixed.

Stevens’s assistant, Mac, had a failed set of deKalbs in his air-car. Since he was near his hometown, he went walking and came to the house of Gramps Schneider, who fixed the deKalbs by “thinking” them fixed. If that weren’t unscientific enough, the rigid metal “fingers” of the deKalbs now wiggle like fingers reaching for the power they need to operate.

The story then shifts back to Waldo’s attempt to discover the cause for the failing deKalbs. He tries to determine if the manufacturing or the operation of the deKalbs is at fault, but so far, Waldo has discovered no reason for the deKalbs to be faulty. He also has discovered that Doc Grimes’s theory on humankind becoming weaker is true, and is discovering that radiant energy is in fact the prime reason—humankind is slowly poisoning itself on the radiant energy technology. Meanwhile, Stevens has sent the deKalbs that Gramps Schneider fixed to Waldo. Dr. Rambeau, the physicist, calls Waldo to explain that he, too, can make the deKalbs work. He tells Waldo: “You are here and I am there. Or maybe not. Nothing is certain. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING is certain! Around and around the little ball goes, and where it stops nobody knows. Only I’ve learned how to do it.” He goes on to tell Waldo that “nothing is certain any more. . . . Chaos is King and Magic is loose in the world!” Rambeau disappears soon after his conversation with Waldo (before he is locked up as a lunatic) and Waldo must study the wiggling deKalbs (Rambeau has made a second set behave in the same way) and discover an answer to the problems on his own.

Learning

Waldo finally comes down to Earth in order to meet Gramps Schneider and hopefully learn how Gramps Schneider made the deKalbs work—and wiggle. Essentially, Gramps tells Waldo that he told the deKalbs to reach into the “Other World” for energy and implies that Waldo could do the same in order to be cured of his myasthenia gravis. Gramps Schneider also tells Waldo that the deKalbs seem to be failing not because of any mechanical problem— but because the operators of the deKalbs are “tired and fretting,” and essentially think their deKalbs into not working.

Waldo returns to Freehold interested, but puzzled by Gramps Schneider’s ideas about how the deKalbs and other machinery work. After Stevens calls Waldo and warns him that time is growing short and they need an answer quickly, Waldo reconsiders the “Other World” and begins researching magic and begins to accept that the “Other World” is a reality. Eventually, Waldo also makes a set of broken deKalbs wiggle and work. However, while visiting with Doc Grimes, they notice that the “fixed” deKalbs aren’t using the radiant energy. They are taking energy from somewhere else, and Waldo hypothesizes that they are taking energy from the “Other World.” Hence, by “hexing” all of the deKalbs (or simply building “Schneider-deKalbs”), he has solved both problems: There will be no more need for the radiant energy that was causing humankind’s muscles to deteriorate, and he can create functioning deKalbs.

Waldo considers the nature of the “Other World” and its relation to our own:

Suppose Chaos were king and the order we thought we detected in the world about us a mere phantasm of the imagination; where would that lead us? In that case, Waldo decided, it was entirely possible that a ten-pound weight did fall ten times as fast as a one-pound weight until the day the audacious Galileo decided in his mind that it was not so. Perhaps the whole meticulous science of ballistics derived from the convictions of a few firm-minded individuals who had sold the notion to the world. Perhaps the very stars were held firm in their courses by the unvarying faith of the astronomers. Orderly Cosmos, created out of Chaos—by Mind!. . .

More recently it had been different. A prevalent convention of materialistic and invariable causation had ruled the world; on it was based the whole involved technology of a machine-served civilization. The machines worked, the way they were designed to work, because everybody believed in them.

Until a few pilots, somewhat debilitated by overmuch exposure to radiation, had lost their confidence and infected their machines with uncertainty—and thereby let magic loose in the world. (Excerpt from “Waldo”)

Waldo continues to study the phenomenon of the “Other World” and begins to apply what he has learned to his own condition, myasthenia gravis, until he can finally walk and endure in gravity again. He returns to Earth as a whole man—a brilliant mind and a vibrant body.

Characters

Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones

See Waldo F. Jones

Mr. Gleason

See Stanley F. Gleason

Stanley F. Gleason

Gleason is Dr. Stevens’s boss at North American Power-Air. He is the first to contact Waldo in regard to the problems with the “infallible” deKalb receptors which are causing air-cars to crash.

Grandfather

See Gramps Schneider

Doc Grimes

Doc Grimes is a somewhat eccentric doctor who delivered Waldo despite his concerns that something was wrong with the infant. Only Grimes has the audacity to speak plainly to the adult Waldo. He treats Waldo like the bright, but spoiled man that Waldo has become. He believes that humankind is gradually becoming weaker as they are continually exposed to low levels of radiation. He thus convinces Waldo to not only take on the problem of the failing deKalb receptors, but to find a solution that would also solve the problem of radiation exposure.

Dr. Augustus Grimes

See Doc Grimes

Dr. Gus Grimes

See Doc Grimes

Uncle Gus

See Doc Grimes

Waldo F. Jones

Waldo F. Jones is an eccentric genius who has a serious muscle disorder that renders him physically weak. To compensate for this physical handicap, Waldo has developed his mental capabilities. Moreover, Waldo invented a device to act as a strong hand for him. Though this device requires little strength to properly function, it demands the user’s complete control. Waldo lives in an isolated space station of his own design, orbiting Earth. With his muscle disorder, Waldo is convinced that he is intellectually superior to the “smooth apes” that inhabit the Earth and perform physical labor for him.

Mac

See Hugh Donald MacLeod

Hugh Donald MacLeod

Dr. Stevens’s assistant, Hugh introduces the hex doctor, Gramps Schneider.

Gramps Schneider

A “hex doctor” who ultimately shows Waldo how to fix the balky deKalb receptors and his own body by reaching into the “Other World” for energy, Gramps Schneider is a childhood acquaintance of Hugh MacLeod. Gramps Schneider dislikes machines and technology, yet agrees to fix the broken deKalbs that Hugh brings him because he likes to help “boys.”

James Stevens

As the Chief Traffic Engineer for North American Power-Air, Dr. James Stevens must find a solution for the failing power in the “infallible” deKalb receptors. Dr. Stevens is a practical man looking for a practical solution where none exists. He decides to consult Waldo to help him solve the problem. He solicits his friend, Doc Grimes, to help him convince Waldo to solve the problem of the failing deKalbs.

Jim Stevens

See Dr. James Stevens

Jimmie Stevens

See Dr. James Stevens

Themes

Science and Technology

Ultimately, most works of science fiction deal with the theme of science and technology, and especially with how humanity deals with the technology it has created. In “Waldo,” Heinlein seems to express some concern that humanity is creating technology too quickly and not testing it thoroughly enough. Because of human carelessness, then, technology becomes harmful, causing a physical deterioration of the human race. He compounds this theme with a warning against becoming too intellectual and not balancing both the physical and intellectual aspects of human life. By equating the overly intellectual Waldo with technology (Waldo’s creation of the waldo and his home, Freehold) and then having Waldo become independent of that technology (both his waldoes and Freehold), Heinlein warns against relying too heavily on technology and instead reminds readers to live life without being dependent upon it.

Individual vs. Machine

Heinlein modifies this theme somewhat in “Waldo,” as Waldo really is part machine in the beginning of the story. Since he cannot move easily on his own, Waldo creates machines (which bear his name, further emphasizing his connection and dependence on machines) that will help him manipulate the world around him. He also builds Freehold, nicknamed “Wheelchair,” the space station in which he lives. Freehold has earned its nickname because it is the machine that allows Waldo some semblance of a mobile life; without it, he would be at the mercy of others and essentially motionless. By the end of the story, however, Waldo has freed himself from the waldoes he created, and from his “wheelchair” in order to become his own complete person.

Topics for Further Study

  • Why do you think Heinlein framed this story with Waldo as a ballet-tap dancer/brain surgeon? Why does he have Waldo repeat that “they were all such grand guys?”
  • Research the use of waldoes. What is a waldo, and in what discipline is it most commonly used today?
  • Do some research on the differences between fantasy and science fiction literature. Is “Waldo” a science fiction story or a fantasy story? Why do you think so?
  • Research the levels of radiation that we receive from everyday appliances such as computers, televisions, and microwaves. How could these levels of radiation affect our bodies? Could Heinlein have been serving a warning to us against using such technologies? Use examples from the story to support your view.

Search for Identity

As in some of his juvenile novels, Heinlein explores humanity’s search for a sense of individuality, a sense of self. Waldo, at the beginning of the story, is hardly distinguishable from his own machines, his waldoes. He is completely dependent on technology to keep him functioning, and so in a sense, his identity is lost in the machines around him. Forced from childhood into a life of physical inactivity, Waldo threw himself into the only activity remaining to him: that of intellectual exercise. However, Waldo the intellectual is only half of a man, and despite his constant posturing to the contrary, he realizes that he is incomplete.

Within the framework of the story, Waldo is both a dancer and a brain surgeon, melding both the physical with the intellectual. By Waldo’s choice of professions, Heinlein emphasizes the importance of this balance between the physical and the intellectual and implies that both are necessary for a person to be complete. Waldo’s search for an answer to the problem of why the infallible fails, mirrors his search for his complete self; he must reach beyond the machines and technology for his own identity, and for solutions to his immediate problem.

Style

Point of View

As in many science fiction and fantasy stories, the point of view in “Waldo” constantly shifts from one character to another. The point of view of “Waldo” initially can be identified as Waldo’s, but in the space of a few paragraphs changes to that of Dr. Stevens. By attaching the point of view to a character, an author can place the reader in the story and learn what a specific character thinks and feels.

Many science fiction and fantasy pieces strive to make their characters familiar to the reader since the technology or the land itself might be very unfamiliar (i.e., Mars or Jupiter). By pairing the reader with a particular character for the point of view of the story, the author limits what the reader can know to what that particular character might know. However, if the author wants the reader to know something that the character does not know, he has to become creative in telling the reader that information. In many cases the author will simply imply the information, but this is an unreliable technique. Perhaps the reader will miss a vital piece of data.

In science fiction and fantasy stories, the writer will often change the point of view from character to character in order to reveal necessary material. This method also allows the author to develop characters not only by their actions, but also by how other characters perceive those actions. In “Waldo,” Heinlein shifts his point of view between Waldo, Dr. Stevens, and Doc Grimes in order to give the reader a clearer picture of each man. Waldo seems quite reasonable in his own sections, but when seen through the eyes of Dr. Stevens, he is revealed more as a spoiled child than a slightly eccentric genius. When seen through the eyes of Doc Grimes, Waldo is even more of a spoiled child. Doc Grimes has to remind Waldo of his own selfishness in order to manipulate him into agreeing to help Dr. Stevens find a cause for the failing power receptors.

Structure and the Framing Device

Heinlein begins and ends “Waldo” with a glimpse of an older, more mature Waldo than is seen in the rest of the story. This is a Waldo who is both physically and intellectually fit, he is both a body and a brain (a dancer and a brain surgeon). When a reporter asks Waldo how he got started in dance, the story fiashes back to Dr. Stevens and the problems at North American Power-Air with the non-functioning deKalb receptors. The rest of the story unfolds in a straightforward chronological pattern explaining how Waldo solves both the problems of the balky deKalbs and the radiant power that is weakening humankind. At the end of the story, Heinlein closes his frame by returning to the older, physically fit Waldo in order to emphasize the fitness (and politeness) of Waldo now that he has become a whole person in mind and body.

Historical Context

Heinlein wrote “Waldo” prior to 1942, the date of its publication in Astounding. He actually did not write new material during World War 11, but did publish some material that he had previously written. By the late 1930s and the early 1940s, the Industrial Age was becoming the Technological Age. Progress equaled technology, and Americans wanted to be the most progressive country in the world. As a result, the United States in particular enjoyed a boom period from the development of electricity, up through the development of the microcomputer.

While various technologies were tested for short-term effects on the environment and on human health, little was done to test whether or not there might be any long-term effects from the technologies discovered. For example, X- ray machines were placed in shoe stores in the 1950s because merchants wanted to use the new technology to show their customers how well their shoes fit. It was discovered later that too much radiation was harmful to the human body. Consequently, the X-ray machines were quickly removed from the stores. It is this lack of foresight to consider possible consequences of technologies that Heinlein highlights in “Waldo.” How do we really know what the effects of those technologies will be unless we test them over a period of time? Since Heinlein writes science fiction, he sets the story somewhat in the future, which seems to divorce it from a distinct historical perspective, but the concerns of his own time period show through the text itself.

Critical Overview

While Heinlein has long been considered the “dean of science fiction,” some critics debate whether or not “Waldo” is really a work of science fiction. For example, Charles N. Brown, in his introduction to the 1979 edition of Waldo and Magic, Inc., maintained that “Waldo” is obviously a work of fantasy by the inclusion of details like the following: “air-cars that look like broomsticks. When Waldo shouts, ‘Magic is loose in the world!’ he is not being facetious. The power failures turn out to be caused by people worrying; the solution is to believe and be able to tap the power of the ‘other world.’”

While Brown is certain that “Waldo” is a work of fantasy, Alexei Panshin in Heinlein in Dimension, claimed that “I am certain that ‘Waldo’ is a science fiction story rather than a fantasy story.” Panshin suggests that the very scientific way that Waldo goes about solving his technological problems, and even their magical solution, make the story more science fiction than fantasy. Bruce Franklin, in his Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, claims that Heinlein is preoccupied by “two quite contradictory conceptions of the relations between mind and matter. On one side he has faith in science and technology. . . . On the other side, he rejects science and embraces wishful thinking, the direct, unfettered immediate control of matter by mind.”

Nor is “Waldo” the only story that critics have derided this tension between the rational world of science and the more irrational world of fantasy. Heinlein’s entire canon, particularly Assignment in Eternity, demonstrates this science fiction versus fantasy tension.

Other critics have commented on Heinlein’s ability to draw a complete world in his fiction, not simply a single technological difference to distinguish the fictional world from the actual, but a well-fleshed-out new world that is still somehow familiar. Brown comments on this when he states that “broadcast power is the invention that makes the world of “Waldo” possible. Instead of just replacing automobiles with radiant power vehicles, Heinlein mentions some of the changes which have happened. . . . There is enough background texture.”

While Heinlein’s worlds are often praised, his characterizations have more often drawn fire from the critics, especially his characterizations of women.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1940s: Workers during the Great Depression are faced with unemployment rates as high as 25% and relief comes through socialistic government programs. The U.S. also increases defense spending as the nation enters World War II in 1941.

    1990s: Unemployment stands around 6%, but corporate downsizing has many workers concerned about their future. The government must reduce a multi-billion dollar deficit, yet the stock market continues its strong performance.
  • 1940s: Blacks are excluded from the suburban housing boom of the era. The Federal Housing Authority practices “redlining”: on city maps it draws red lines around predominantly black inner-city areas and refuses to insure loans for houses in those areas. This practice contributes to the demise of the inner city.

    1990s: Though many upper- and middle-class blacks live and work in the suburbs, poor blacks are often confined to substandard housing in decaying urban areas, or ghettos.
  • 1940s: Technological advances increase dramatically during the war years. In the later part of the decade, as wartime economy is replaced by peacetime economy, America is still in the fore-front of technical exploration and knowledge.

    1990s: Technology has a ever-increasing role in American life. Nearly all business transactions are done via computer; databases hold vital information to every aspect of human life. Critics warn that privacy is impossible in such a society. Meanwhile, the Internet makes it possible to communicate quickly and efficiently, and its possible uses are still being explored. Critics charge that it further alienates people from each other and disseminates subversive information to young children and adults.

Despite lip service given to the idea of the equality of women and men by creating competent and intelligent female characters, Heinlein’s actual characterizations of female characters are almost invariably sexist. For example, in E. F. Bleiler’s Science Fiction Writers, Peter Nicholls writes that the main character from Podkayne of Mars “is the least bearable of all of Heinlein’s heroines. Although her competence is high, her language is arch, whimsical, and frankly sticky throughout. Heinlein’s usual inability to create women who can communicate directly with other people in any terms other than coy banter is one of his most obvious flaws.”

Over the course of a long career in writing, Heinlein’s writing gained commercial popularity. However, he also suffered disapproval from critics who often considered his novels to be somewhat symptomatic of what was wrong with science fiction as a genre. Some commentators maintained his work featured too much science and too little skill in the art of creating fully believable worlds and characters, as well as stories that engaged the reader in terms of craft, not just sensationalism.

Criticism

Robin MacRorie

MacRorie has taught literature and composition at the University of Notre Dame. In the following essay, she examines the techniques Heinlein uses to illustrate the necessity of self-reliance in “Waldo.”

Science fiction stories are often characterized as stories about technology and gadgetry. We often expect science fiction to laud the merits of technology, especially the “golden age” of science fiction, such as Heinlein’s early works, which have earned a reputation for painting a rosy picture of a future filled with time-saving gadgets and robots. “Waldo,”

however, is an early example of one of Heinlein’s most prominent themes—that man should rely on himself and his own intelligence, not solely on technology.

First of all, Heinlein has created a central character who, by all rights, should be dependent on other people. Waldo has myasthenia gravis, a muscle disorder which renders Waldo quite incapable physically. He must use two hands in order to feed himself with a spoon, and even at that, the process is quite tiring and laborious. If Waldo were to remain on Earth at our normal gravity, he would have to have caretakers to pander to his every need, from feeding him, to turning the pages of a book if he wished to read.

However, Waldo is not content to remain so reliant on those around him. By the age often he has invented a machine which will hold a book for him as well as both light the pages and turn them with a simple control panel sensitive to Waldo’s touch. While Waldo must have someone else build his invention for him at that age, by the time Waldo becomes an adult, he is capable of building his own inventions. Waldo, trying to become more independent,

What Do I Read Next?

  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for 1985. Ender Wiggin, a brilliant young child, must learn to excel at military games and make his subordinates love him, all while trying to understand how the Buggers think before the Buggers attack Earth a third time. Ender must use not only his physical prowess to survive his training, but he needs all of his wits about him to survive the games and the Buggers.
  • In Assignment in Eternity (1953), Robert A. Heinlein again tackles the ability of the mind to perform a kind of magic, or extra-sensory perception. A series of four short stories, each deals in some way with humanity’s reaching into the “Other World” or another dimension.
  • Heinlein’s 1965 novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, deals with Manny, Wyoh, and Professor de la Paz trying to free their land from the tyranny of Earth with the help of a sentient computer named Mike. While the revolution is deadly serious to the humans involved, it begins solely as an elaborate practical joke for the bodiless Mike until he realizes his own mortality.
  • Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage trilogy— Magic’s Pawn (1989), Magic’s Promise (1990), and Magic’s Price (1990)—deals with the “science” of magic and how it works in the land of Valdemar. Young Vanyel must learn the laws of magic as well as use that magic to protect his family and friends.

realizes that he must escape Earth’s gravity if he is ever to be able to take care of himself. Without gravity to hold him down, his muscular weakness will not matter, he will not need to exert a great amount of force to accomplish simple tasks. Heinlein, however, very specifically tells his readers that Waldo’s home, Freehold, is nothing more than a fancy crutch rather than a cure when he has Dr. Stevens refer to Waldo’s home as Wheelchair.

Nor is Freehold/Wheelchair the only crutch on which Waldo relies. Waldo has also invented a mechanical “hand” of sorts, a series of joints that he can control by making small movements in a glove which acts as a remote control for the mechanical hand. This invention gives Waldo the strength he needs to be able to do anything. For example, he uses one of these mechanical hands to catch his dog, Baldur, when the dog rushes a visitor. Other people call this invention a waldo, after their creator. In a sense, they are very right to name the invention after the inventor, for Waldo cannot exist on his own without the aid of his waldoes. He has, to a certain extent, become machine himself since he is reliant on both his space station and the mechanical hands which bear his name in order to exist “on his own.”

Despite Waldo’s seeming independence from others, Heinlein emphasizes just how dependent Waldo really is on technology. In fact, Heinlein goes on to have Doc Grimes underline Waldo’s dependence, not just on technology, but on other people as well, in the very beginning of the novella. When Waldo first learns of the failing deKalb receptors and North American Power-Air asks Waldo for help, he brushes NAPA off, claiming that the problem is interesting, but that he will not help them discover the answer. Doc Grimes reminds him just how dependent on other people Waldo still is. Waldo imports all of his food, an obvious necessity and a surprising dependence on others. Once reminded of this dependence, Waldo agrees to tackle both the problem of the failing deKalb receptors as well as the problem that Grimes reveals to him: the use of radiant, broadcast energy (such as the deKalbs) is causing humans to become weaker and weaker. His decision to solve these two problems eventually leads to Waldo solving his own personal problem as well: his own physical weakness.

Waldo has two types of dependency, then. First, he is reliant on his technological gadgetry to lead the life of a normal person. Second, he relies on other people to make sure that he has all of the necessities of life. A smaller third dependence is his reliance on Doc Grimes, Uncle Gus to Waldo, to keep him acting somewhat civilized. Despite Heinlein’s insistence on self-reliance in the first two categories, though, he makes it quite clear in this novella that self-reliance does not equal a complete isolation from others.

With the types of dependency established, we can now examine exactly how Heinlein goes about convincing the reader that self-reliance is the answer, not technology. First, of course, we see Waldo’s determination to be independent of others, to not have to rely on them to do everything for him. Since Waldo is the title character, we can assume that we are to learn something from him. In most ways, however, Waldo seems to be a character hard to like or to learn from. His personality is overbearing and arrogant. His only redeeming quality seems to be his fierce independence. But, as previously stated, Waldo is not quite as independent as he first seems. He is entirely dependent on technology, from the very house in which he lives to the mechanical waldoes which allow him to lead some semblance of a normal life. He is also dependent on others to make sure that he is provided with the necessities of life. What at first seemed to be Waldo’s saving grace is a bit more complicated than it appeared. However, by looking closely at the frame (a device which both begins and ends the story) of the novella, Heinlein’s insistence on self-reliance is, in fact, one of the main tropes of the story.

In the framing device of the novella, Heinlein gives a small episode with Waldo. In the beginning, Heinlein spends several paragraphs explaining that this character has it all—a lucrative performing career (in ballet-tap, indicating great physical grace, strength and endurance) as well as being a brain surgeon (indicating a great physical dexterity, but more importantly, this profession indicates intelligence). Heinlein does not reveal to the reader just who this paragon of the physical and the intellectual is, but instead he jumps back in time by having a reporter ask the great performer/surgeon how he came to take up dancing. Heinlein then begins narrating “Waldo” in a more-or-less chronological order beginning with a description of the immediate problems to be solved and ending with the solution of those problems. He then concludes the novella with Waldo telling the reporter that the reason he

“Waldo’s joining of the human race is the result of his leaving behind the technology that he had relied upon to make him independent.”

went into dance is quite a long story and implies that it is one that he does not have time to go into at the moment.

But Heinlein’s characterization of Waldo in this framing device is dramatically different than that of Waldo in the central story. Waldo in the frame is a polite and genuinely nice individual. Rather than dismiss the reporters and photographers, he thanks them for their attention and offers them drinks in his dressing room. He thinks of them as “grand guys” repeatedly. When the former head of NAPA, Gleason, approaches Waldo with a batch of legal papers to sign, Waldo does so without reading them, telling Gleason that if the papers are to Gleason’s satisfaction, then they are to Waldo’s satisfaction as well. Heinlein ends the story with Waldo’s thought, “They were all such grand guys.”

However, in the course of the main story, Heinlein portrays Waldo as a man nearly incapable of behaving politely. When Waldo first meets Stevens, for example, Waldo acts as if he will help solve the problem of the balky deKalb receptors but finally tells Stevens that he will do nothing to help NAPA out of its troubles. He goes so far as to tell Stevens that he is no “roller-skate mechanic for apes,” implying that the men on Earth mean as little to him as apes do to humans; he is contemptuous of them. Even when Gramps Schneider reveals the answer to the deKalbs as well as eliminating the need for radiant power, he thinks of Gramps Schneider as that “hex doctor,” as if it is an accident that this man was able to discover the answer when Waldo had been unable to do so himself.

What changes from the main text of the story to the framing device? The answer is simple. Waldo is no longer reliant on his Wheelchair or on his waldoes. Waldo’s joining of the human race is the result of his leaving behind the technology that he had relied upon to make him independent. Once he thought of himself as free of that dependence, he became free of it in reality as well. It is in the frame, which seems at first as only a superficial reason for the telling of the story, that Heinlein’s main focus becomes readily apparent: by relying on our own selves instead of technology we can find the strength we need to do whatever it is we need to do.

Source: Robin MacRorie. “Overview of ‘Waldo.’” for Short Stories for Students. The Gale Group. 2000.

Alice Carol Gaar

In the following excerpt, Gaar maintains that Heinlein’s failure to depict characters reacting emotionally to intense experience results in shallow characterization.

. . . “Waldo” develops Heinlein’s cosmic personality by focusing on an individual who is transformed from a physically inferior person (although mechanically brilliant) into someone who is superior in the sense that the new Waldo begins successfully to create the world of men in his own image. The story moves from the self-isolation of the physically inferior, compensating individual to a totally new spatial and temporal orientation on the part of that genius who, as a result of his newly positive attitude toward the rest of humanity, shares his discovery with others. As in “Universe” weightlessness symbolizes the freedom of outer space where one is closer to one’s own true nature as a dweller in space. Waldo’s genius has lifted him above the physical confines of gravity. Out there he becomes aware of another world which is a source as well as a depository of energy. The Other World is the place where Waldo searches for speed, where he compares electricity to nerve impulses. Waldo proceeds on the assumption that the energy from the Other World is also subject to laws which can be discovered and used if the formulas are known.

Heinlein’s shallowness in character portrayal reveals itself here in these machinations. His characters avoid traumatic shock by refusing to confront something unpredictable within a system. Waldo calls Gramps Schneider a hex doctor and then proceeds to work out basic rules for tapping the power source of the unpredictable. Like Heinlein, Waldo is the mechanical genius who avoids the confrontation with the all-encompassing theoretical implications of this new energy. Rambeau really seems more consistent when he loses his sanity because of the traumatic shock to his rigid scientific outlook. Waldo remains, however, a very clever child intrigued by the possibilities and blind to the real import.

But there are some interesting insights in Waldo’s attempts to develop a terminal for the power source. When he mentally reduces the Other World to the size of an ostrich egg, he shows his own mastery of a comprehensive structure—a process which in itself becomes the new source of his strength. In this way Waldo has gone beyond the mere sense of another world, as in “Magic, Inc.,” and as an individual, beyond the helpless exposure to other dimensions, as in Methuselah’s Children. Energy from the Other World makes him into a complete human being who wants nothing more than to be surrounded by other people who like him.

Here again Heinlein’s conceptual weakness becomes obvious. The Other World is actually other people, and learning how to manipulate energy corresponds to learning how to interact with the other people, and at the same time, learning how to be a man. But the real interaction with the Other World has to admit its basic mystery, as the theoretician would even while he speculated about it. The author allows the energy exchange between Waldo and his counterpart in the Other World to degenerate into “nerve surgery”—a mechanical and most inadequate description of the process that Waldo thinks he has discovered. The emotional complexity of the exchange is missing, therefore the intimation of the Other World is flat.

Waldo’s transformation from an embittered, weak genius into a physical superman is an obvious spin-off from Faust and Nietzschean motifs. The greatness of Goethe’s masterpiece is due, among other things, to a consistent following through in the bargain that Faust makes with Mephistopheles. Faust’s reign of glory is always in the shadow of the final payment. Every ounce of energy that he receives demands its physical and emotional price. His return to youth at the beginning is balanced by the mistakes of youth and the blindness of old age. The wisdom, wealth, and power that he gains bring with them an emotional winnowing. In the science fiction novel it is the lack of an accompanying developmental trauma that suggests Waldo’s powers are spurious. Only in Rambeau’s madness and a short description of Waldo’s bitter hatred of the “smooth apes” are there the rudiments of an emotional interaction to intense experiences, but these lines are never developed. Though Waldo decides that mental concentration can prevent the myasthenia gravis which is weakening the people below and is the source of his own crippled state, he does not analyze the nature of mental control over the body. His mechanics lead nowhere, and nothing important is really demonstrated. But the positive point made is that Waldo becomes a “real” man, even wants to impress girls (echoing Faust’s pathetic wish to fall in love), when he can draw off the energy of the Other World not only to heal himself, but to give himself physical capabilities that others do not possess.

Source: Alice Carol Gaar. “The Human as Machine Analog: The Big Daddy of Interchangeable Parts in the Fiction of Robert A. Heinlein.” in Robert A. Heinlein. edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. Taplinger Publishing Company. 1978. pp. 64-82.

Alexei Panshin

In the following excerpt, Panshin provides an overview of the plot of Waldo,” and discusses his reasons for considering the story a work of science fiction rather than fantasy.

Beyond the fact that it was originally published in a science fiction magazine. I am certain that [“Waldo”] is a science fiction story rather than a fantasy story, but I am very far from certain that I can satisfactorily explain why.

The basic elements of “Waldo” are four: a Pennsylvania hex doctor who may be well over a hundred years old and whose magic actually works; “deKalb power receptors” that have suddenly ceased to operate properly though nothing seems to be wrong with them: a rising incidence of general myasthenia—abnormal muscular weakness and fatigue—in the population: and Waldo, an engineering genius and paranoid misanthrope afflicted by myasthenia gravis who lives in a satellite home popularly known as “Wheelchair.” Heinlein has managed to tie this all together into a fascinating whole.

The deKalbs are failing, and their proprietors, North American Power-Air Co., are worried. They can’t lick the problem and are convinced that the only man who might is Waldo. However, the company once cut Waldo out of some patents that he is convinced should have been his and they are far from sure that he will do any further business with them.

Dr. Gus Grimes, Waldo’s personal physician since childhood and his only friend, is worried by the rise of myasthenia in the population and is convinced that background radiation has something

“The Other World is actually other people, and learning how to manipulate energy corresponds to learning how to interact with the other people, and at the same time, learning how to be a man.”

to do with it. He wants Waldo to take on the problem of the failing deKalbs and not only work out a solution, but find one that will necessitate cutting down the amount of general radiation.

Waldo’s own problem is his sickness and his misanthropy, the misanthropy being a direct result of his sickness. His success is a matter of over-compensation, and the more successful he is the more alienated he becomes, thus leaving him with that much more to compensate for.

Gramps Schneider, the Pennsylvania hex doctor, has no problems except that he has no particular love for machines and complicated living. He is, however, the key to the whole situation. Waldo takes on NAPA’s problem, but then is unable to solve it, let alone in the manner Dr. Grimes would prefer. For all that he can tell, the machines ought to be working properly. Gramps Schneider, however, can fix the machines, and he is able to give Waldo the insights by which he solves the problem of the failing deKalbs, the problem of radiation and general myasthenia, and the problem of his own sickness.

Completely aside from the main problem, Heinlein has included some truly lovely conceits. The best-known of these are the machines known as “waldoes,” devices for remote control manipulation. Similar machines are in commercial use today, first developed for handling radioactive material, and are generally known as waldoes after those described in the story. But this is not the only ingenious idea given. Waldo’s satellite home and the behavior of Waldo’s pets, a canary and a mastiff, raised from birth in free fall, are particularly well-imagined. None of this is necessary to the story, but it does add richness to it.

“Waldo’s own problem is his sickness and his misanthropy, the misanthropy being a direct result of his sickness.”

The reason for my original puzzlement as to how “Waldo” should be categorized—science fiction or fantasy—is the nature of the solution to the various given problems. It turns out that the deKalbs are failing because their operators are thinking negative thoughts. Gramps Schneider fixes the deKalbs by reaching for power into the “Other World.” And Waldo fixes both himself and the failing deKalbs by learning to reach for power into the Other World, too.

More than this, Waldo becomes convinced that the various magical arts are all aborted sciences, abandoned before they had been made clear; that the world has been made what it is by minds thinking it so (the world was flat until geographers decided it was round, and the deKalbs worked because their operators thought they would); that the Other World does exist; and that he, Waldo, can make the Other World what he wants it to be, for all time, by deciding its nature and convincing everybody else of his ideas.

Throughout much of his fiction, Heinlein has injected bits of mysticism, just as he did here in “Waldo.” What keeps “Waldo” and most of the others from being fantasies, it seems to me, is his approach to the mysticism. “Magic, Inc.” is a fantasy because the answers are cut-and-dried. Magic does work, period. Do thus-and-such and thus-and-thus will result. In “Waldo” we only know one thing for certain: there is something out there, call it the “Other World” for convenience, from which power can be siphoned. All the rest is Waldo’s tentative construction of the state of affairs—he may be right or he may be wrong, but we have no certain way of knowing. In part, this is Heinlein’s way of saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and that is a far from illegitimate thing for a science fiction story to say. In part, too, I think this derives from Heinlein’s background and training. As a writer, he remains very much an engineer. His interest has always been not so much in why things work as in how they work, and as long as he exposits the “how” clearly, he is willing to leave the “why” as a tentative answer.

If the answers Heinlein were to give were not tentative, if the story said, “And this is exactly what those things in heaven and earth you haven’t dreamt of are,” and these answers fall outside what we think the world to be like, the story would be a fantasy. As long as the answers remain tentative, as in “Waldo,” the story remains one that I can point to when I say “science fiction,” even though the answers may again be ones that fall outside the bounds of what we think the world to be like.

Source: Alexei Panshin, “The Period of Influence,” in Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis, Advent Publishers, Inc., 1968, pp. 9-40.

Sources

Brown, Charles N. Introduction to Waldo and Magic, Inc., by Robert A. Heinlein, Gregg Press, 1979, pp. v-ix.

Franklin, H. Bruce. “From Depression into World War II: The Early Fiction,” in Robert Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 17-63.

Nicholls, Peter. Quoted in Science Fiction Writers, edited by E. F. Bleiler, New York: Scribner, 1982.

Further Reading

Brown, Charles N. Introduction to Waldo and Magic, Inc., by Robert A. Heinlein, Gregg Press, 1979, pp. v-ix.

Examines the plot of “Waldo,” as well as some of the story’s imagery, and argues that the story is a work of fantasy.

Franklin, H. Bruce. “From Depression into World War II: The Early Fiction,” in Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 17-63.

Contends that “Waldo” is characterized by the contradictory points of scientific faith and power of the mind.

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