The novella “Waldo” by Robert A. Heinlein was published for the first time in 1942 in the August issue of the magazine “Astounding Science-Fiction” under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald.
In the future, vehicles are powered by a technology that allows them to receive energy rays projected by a remote generator. More and more vehicles are ceasing to function though apparently there are no faults. The manufacturer company’s engineers are clueless and can’t curb the problem so the only solution seems to seek the help of Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones though it’s a desperate idea.
Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones was born with a severe congenital muscular weakness which makes it difficult for him to make any physical effort, however slight. Forced to develop his intellect, he became a famous inventor and he built a house in orbit, where he can escape gravity and move effortlessly. Driven to misanthropy, he’s persuaded to deal with this new problem but even he will have to strive hard to try to understand the causes and find a solution.
“Waldo” is famous for the introduction of the remote manipulators, mechanisms to operate at a distance. The protagonist uses them to compensate for his extreme muscle weakness while those actually built are used to operate on objects in hazardous environments. This type of manipulators is called waldo thanks to this novella but Robert A. Heinlein claimed to have got the idea from an article he read on a 1918 issue of the magazine “Popular Mechanics”.
Regardless of the origin of the idea of the waldo, for many authors it would be enough to write a novella but Robert A. Heinlein had shown since the early years of his career that he was far above average of his colleagues. That’s why the waldo is basically a secondary idea within this story that talks more generally about the use of technology with its benefits but also its dangers.
In a future where transports are equipped with a power supply that today we’d call wireless, vehicles have started stopping for no apparent reason. Desperate, the manager of the producer company are forced to contact Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones, a brilliant but misanthropic inventor who also hates their company because he believes that in the past they cheated him.
Waldo was able to develop his intellect thanks to a wealthy family and became rich thanks to his inventions and solving the problems of other companies. In addition to the remote manipulators, Heinlein describes his home in orbit, where everything is adapted for use in zero gravity in a story written many years before someone started to build space stations.
Waldo is persuaded to agree to solve the problem of the vehicle failure only because his supplies depend on their proper functioning. In his research he ends up discovering a lot more than he expected and that changes him so that “Waldo” is in some ways also a coming of age story.
In the course of his research, Waldo somehow borders on magic but Heinlein’s approach is as usual very practical. Waldo’s research leads him to conclusions apparently absurd and yet the facts are indisputable so he accepts them because that’s the only rational attitude. Later it will be possible to look for a rational explanation for what he discovered but in the meantime Waldo accepts reality, even if it goes against what were his beliefs.
One of the fundamental problems addressed in “Waldo” are the long-term consequences of energy transmission. The first time I read this story, many years ago, the idea struck me as curious, today it seems much more interesting in light of the current controversy on electromagnetic pollution.
To be clear, the idea developed in “Waldo” is very different from the possible problems caused by the exposure to the electromagnetic waves of mobile phones and other sources but the underlying principle that the long-term use of a certain technology can have unexpected consequences is now more important than ever.
Given its limited length, the pace of the story is fast, though the ending is quite anti-climatic. The protagonist is the only character really developed but on the other hand this is a story based above all on its ideas, concentrated in abundance.
“Waldo” has rightly become a classic and yet in my opinion isn’t considered enough, a little for its age and a little because in the following decades Robert A. Heinlein wrote many other memorable stories and sometimes controversial ones so we tend to talk more about them. This is a must-have for any science fiction fan.