Overview of Waldo

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564

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.

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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 of ten 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 indepen dent, 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 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. MacRorie has taught literature and composition at the University of Notre Dame.

Human as Machine Analog: The Big Daddy of Interchangeable Parts in the Fiction of Robert A. Heinlein

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831

. . . ‘‘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.

The Period of Influence

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

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 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 overcompensation, 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 wellimagined. None of this is necessary to the story, but it does add richness to it.

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-andthus 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.

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Critical Overview