Historical Context

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.

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...

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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.

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Literary Style

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...

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Literary Qualities

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.


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Social Sensitivity

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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

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...

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Compare and Contrast

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...

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Topics for Discussion

1. What is arrogance? Is it morally reprehensible?

2. What is the difference between pride and vanity? How can jealousy inspire both covetousness and rejection?

3. Why did Waldo isolate himself in his orbital satellite?

4. Why is Waldo no longer isolated at the end of the story?

5. What is genius? Is it understandable?

6. In what ways is Waldo's awareness of his mental ability a positive factor in his life at the beginning of the story? In what ways is it negative?

7. What is inspiration? Can it be induced or seduced?

8. When Waldo isolates himself, is he being proud, or vain, or jealous? Is this understandable and believable behavior? Is it good...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Compare the fictional genius Waldo with an actual genius, such as Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Compare their working methods, their homes and lifestyle, the inventions they made, and the reasons they were investigating their areas of study.

2. Who developed the Canadarm used on the space shuttle? Where did these researchers work? Of what use is this device? Include an annotated drawing, showing how it is made.

3. Select a waldo which is of interest to you, whether it manipulates dangerous materials or very small objects. How does using this style of waldo benefit researchers or technicians? Are any people helped by the use of this waldo, as Waldo's health was improved in the story? Include an annotated...

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Topics for Further Study

Why do you think Heinlein framed this story with Waldo as a ballet-tap dancer/brain surgeon? Why does he have Waldo repeat that ‘‘they were all such grand guys?’’

Research the use of waldoes. What is a waldo, and in what discipline is it most commonly used today?

Do some research on the differences between fantasy and science fiction literature. Is ‘‘Waldo’’ a science fiction story or a fantasy story? Why do you think so?

Research the levels of radiation that we receive from everyday appliances such as computers, televisions, and microwaves. How could these levels of radiation affect our bodies? Could Heinlein have been serving a warning to us against using...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

Heinlein wrote many works which are in a similar tone and style to Waldo, and one which is in a similar setting: Magic, Inc., which was published in one volume with Waldo. Particularly recommended to readers who have enjoyed this novel is the story "We Also Walk Dogs" and other short stories and novels written by Heinlein during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Several of his works, written over forty years, are linked together in a series spanning two thousand years of human history (starting about 1900 AD). This series does not include Waldo, but there are some stylistic elements in common.

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What Do I Read Next?

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for 1985. Ender Wiggin, a brilliant young child, must learn to excel at military games and make his subordinates love him, all while trying to understand how the Buggers think before the Buggers attack Earth a third time. Ender must use not only his physical prowess to survive his training, but he needs all of his wits about him to survive the games and the Buggers.

In Assignment in Eternity (1953), Robert A. Heinlein again tackles the ability of the mind to perform a kind of magic, or extra-sensory perception. A series of four short stories, each deals in some way with humanity’s reaching into the ‘‘Other World’’ or another...

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For Further Reference

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....

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