Historical Context

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Heinlein wrote ‘‘Waldo’’ prior to 1942, the date of its publication in Astounding. He actually did not write new material during World War II, 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.

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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 Xray 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.


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This short novel is largely set in the orbital satellite designed by Waldo. The author took great pains to make every description technically possible, easy to visualize, and "futuristic" from a 1949 viewpoint. The rest of the book is set in a future with many useful machines powered by cheap, clean energy transmitted from orbit.

It is clear that Heinlein was interested with the notion of going into space. Through his writings readers can observe his earnest wish that it could be possible to live and work and travel in space as confidently as did Waldo and many other of his characters.

Literary Style

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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 flashes 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.

Literary Qualities

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This short novel was written for a pulp science fiction magazine and later printed as a book by a popular science fiction press, one of dozens of titles the press released that year. The author entertained no illusions that this work had any literary merit whatsoever. It earned him money, and it suited the editors who got the manuscript on time, typed neatly. No critic ever reviewed it for a newspaper. Even devoted fans of Heinlein's writing usually regard this as one of his minor works, memorable only for coining a popular name for a useful style of tool.

Heinlein never troubled himself with the literary merit of his writing. He is reported by several interviewers and biographers as being focused on storytelling and writing to meet a deadline or an editorial change. Perhaps because of this, Heinlein's novels in general and Waldo in particular are not considered exceptionally complicated stylistically. The reading level for this novel is higher than the fourth-grade level of most newspapers, yet the story is accessible to young readers because the telling is straightforward and the plot is clear.

Whatever Heinlein felt about the literary merit of other writing styles, he completely eschewed a high-brow style in his own work. The bulk of his writing appeared in pulp magazines and as ordinary releases from publishers working to make a profit. Not till later in life were his novels released and reviewed with the fanfare of celebrity.

In 1947, before he wrote Waldo, Heinlein wrote an essay on how to write speculative fiction, in which he included these rules for writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. 4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

While not a master of style and language, Heinlein instead focused on ideas, and it is these revolutionary ideas that have earned him a place amongst the best science fiction writers.

Social Sensitivity

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In Waldo, inventions are not a "given." They are the product of a human mind, in this case Waldo's, whether they are casual toys or miraculous works of genius. Technology was never used in Heinlein's novels or stories as some elemental force arriving from nowhere and outside of human control, as it sometimes appears in science fiction novels and movies popularized during the 1990s. A stroke of genius might arrive like lightning out of the blue sky, but the inventor is a person and the tool is made by her or his hands and mind. Waldo shows both understandable genius (accomplishments that many engineers might achieve on a very good day, like the physicist Gell-Mann) and wizardry (genius that has no apparent or understandable origin, like the physicist Feynman).

There is a lasting result from this novel's publication. The word "waldo" is applied today throughout the English-speaking world, to describe a tool that reproduces the movements of a hand, as described by Heinlein in this short novel. A waldo may be large as the Canadarm on the space shuttles, or small enough to manipulate slides for an electron microscope, or even inside a chamber where dangerous items can be handled safely.

As a man with working knowledge of practical science, advanced engineering, and architecture, Heinlein was acutely aware that inventions do not come out of thin air. People create particular tools and technology to meet their needs and goals. After Virginia suffered a repetitive stress injury to her arm from carrying buckets to water plants in their drought-stricken garden, Heinlein had a clearer understanding of the merits of new inventions to make life less difficult as well as safer for humans. He also saw that there were better solutions to what could at first seem like a reasonable amount of effort moving one bucket at a time.

This novel is a primary example of how Heinlein wrote again and again on the theme of technology helping to improve people's bodies. This improvement of the body to a state of vigorous good health is nearly always accompanied in his stories and novels by the characters developing a sense of profound well-being and becoming happy (by any of several definitions of happiness). Waldo is an excellent example. After gaining good health and vigor, Waldo is still a genius inventor and self-centred—but he is no longer isolated in his satellite hermitage, and he interacts with people even if only to show off and be admired. Happiness, for the author, includes interacting with other people.

Heinlein may have had his character Waldo experience a profound improvement in his health partly because he experienced an improvement in his own health to some extent when he retired from the Navy. He wished for vigor and complete health and wrote wish-fulfillment stories like Waldo about medical miracles for characters who then sprang into action and adventure. He did not get his wish perfectly fulfilled in this life, but medical technology gave him enough of a miracle to resume a normal life.

Heinlein suffered through the mid-1970s from a blockage of the carotid artery which diminished his writing and self-editing abilities. By his own report in the posthumously published memoir Grumbles from the Grave, he "slept sixteen hours a day and wasn't worth a hoot the other eight." In 1977, after another health problem, he had an operation on his carotid arteries, restoring a vigorous blood flow to his brain and renewing his mental abilities for the last ten years of his life.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Compare and Contrast

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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 forefront 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.

For Further Reference

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Heinlein, Robert A. Requiem. New York City: Doherty, 1989. A retrospective and story collection by Heinlein and authors who were his friends, including Spider Robinson's essay "Robert."

Heinlein and D. F. Vassallo. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long. New York City: Putnam, 1978. Features two chapters excerpted from the novel Time Enough for Love.

Heinlein. Expanded Universe. New York City: Grosset & Dunlap, 1980. An expanded version of a story collection with commentary by the author on himself and his work.

Heinlein. Grumbles from the Grave. Edited by Virginia Heinlein. New York City: Ballantine Books, 1989.

Stover, Leon. Robert A. Heinlein. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A comprehensive book on Heinlein's work that takes a positive approach and refers to Heinlein as a great author without inserting the qualifier "of science fiction."

Gifford, James. "Robert A. Heinlein, Dean of Science Fiction Writers." Wegrokit http://www.wegrokit.com. February 14, 2001. Gifford's review appears along with other information in this website devoted completely to the life and writings of Heinlein.

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