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.
The novel's frame introduces an extraordinary man who is both a professional dancer and a brain surgeon. During an interview with a reporter, the man has a flashback which forms the rest of the novel. On Earth, wireless distribution of power is the standard, but the power receptors are failing unexpectedly all over the world. At the same time, the long-term health of many people is deteriorating. Some scientists believe that this may be related to the problems with power receptors, but are unsure of the relation and do not have the ability to solve the problem themselves.
Concerned experts consult Waldo Jones, who is a wealthy, eccentric inventor suffering from myasthenia gravis, a disease that causes its patients to suffer from degenerative muscle weakness. Living in an orbital satellite where his obese, weak body is weightless, he is not a happy man. He has limited contact with other people, considering them below his superior intellect. Only at the end of the novel does he realize his need for others as well as their need for him. His technical inventions and deductions eventually have applications to improve the lives of many people and his own life as well. At the end of the story, the frame reveals him as the talented surgeon and dancer.
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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 aircars. 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.
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...
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