Waldo Essays and Criticism
by Robert A. Heinlein

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Overview of Waldo

(Short Stories for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3,406 words.)