Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

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: ‘‘aircars 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.’’’

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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. 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.

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Essays and Criticism