Review: Waldo and Magic Inc.

23 Jun

Grimes had been afraid that the handicapped child, since it was not subjected to the usual maturing stresses of growing up, would remain infantile. He knew now—had known for a long time—that he need not have worried. Young Waldo grasped at what little life was offered him, learned thirstily, tried with a sweating tenseness of will to force his undisciplined muscles to serve him.

He was clever in thinking of dodges whereby to circumvent his muscular weakness. At seven he devised a method of controlling a spoon with two hands, which permitted him—painfully—to feed himself. His first mechanical invention was made at ten.

Robert A. Heinlein was never pleased with the publisher’s decision to put Waldo and Magic Inc in the same volume, a custom that has continued up until the most recent editions of Heinlein’s works. They went together, he complained, like ‘watermelon and mustard.’ And yet, they do go together. Heinlein showed, in Waldo, how the modern-day world can come to terms with a whole new form of ‘science’ – magic, in other words, while Magic Inc describes a world where magic is just another form of science, where magicians hang their hats in public and both government and criminal factions seek to make use of magic for their own ends. The settings might be fantastical, and they are not linked together save by the common theme of magic, but the heroes are human.

The titular character of Waldo – who later gave his name to waldos – is a crippled genius, born with an acute disease that, eventually, drove him to move to a private space station and turn it into home suited for his unique needs. Waldo, despite his many infirmaries, never despaired, but sought ways to turn his disabilities into an advantage. His genius may be exactly what a major corporation needs. There’s just one small problem. Waldo hates them.

But the situation is desperate. All over the world, radiant energy receptors are failing. Flying cars are falling out of the sky, power plants are dying and human civilisation may be on the verge of a complete stop. (Worse, there’s a good chance that radiant energy may be adversely affecting the human race, an early case of the paranoia about mobile phone emissions.) Waldo draws a blank, until an old-timer man somehow manages to repair one of the receptors. The sight of a repaired receptor drives one of the corporation’s scientists mad, but Waldo is enthused. He eventually deduces that the radiant energy system is reaching into another world, altering the laws of science. The receptors failed because the people using them lost confidence in them. Waldo uses this insight to solve both problems – the failing generators and the problems caused by radiant energy – and then, learning more about magic, he eventually solves his own problems. By the end of the book, he can walk under his own power.

Magic Inc, by contrast, features a handful of magical shopkeepers who are threatened by the titular Magic Inc. Magic Inc is a de facto protection racket – work with us or you won’t work at all – which is steadily expanding until it threatens to become the dominant power in the magical industrial. Eventually, Magic Inc manages to convince the state government to pass laws giving them exclusive access to magic, putting the heroes out of business. Angry, realising that the power behind Magic Inc is definitely inhuman, the heroes take the battle to hell and defeat the demon in magical combat. In the aftermath, Magic Inc collapses and the status quo is restored.

The core of Waldo focuses on expanding one’s mind, on accepting that the laws of science – as man understands them – may not be as inflexible as we suppose. Indeed, just as some people had trouble accepting everything from steamships to rockets, the people of Waldo’s world find it hard to believe in the Other World. On a more mundane level, some people even have a very solid interest in denying the suggestion that radiant energy is weakening the human race. But the book also shows, again for Heinlein, that science (or magic, in this case) brings problems and solves them.

Waldo himself is a walking advertisement for letting disabled babies live. (His doctor admits, at least to himself, that there were times when he wished the child would die.) Many years before Stephen Hawking, Waldo would show that disabled people have something to contribute to society. (The suggestion that Heinlein never showed a disabled hero is obviously incorrect.) And yet, at the same time, Waldo’s character has been shaped by his experiences. He is, very much, a grumpy old man. Heinlein makes sure to point out that this is a stupid attitude. A man as dependent on others as Waldo cannot afford to alienate the people on whom his livelihood (and indeed his very life) depends. But, at the same time, he will find it hard to get the social contact he needs.

Magic Inc is a form of magical realism, another genre that Heinlein influenced even if he didn’t invent. Set in a world of 1940s America, only with magic, it blends the mundane and the fantastical together. Most notably, it details how a protection racket works – and, more importantly for our current era, the danger of allowing bad laws to be written and put on the books. Indeed, the current fad for poorly-written convention codes of conduct illustrates the danger quite nicely. It also touches on the importance of keeping one’s legislators honest – a difficult task at the best of times – and the problems with monopolies. The dangers of a closed shop – where you need permission from the bosses to work in a certain field – should be obvious. Magic Inc has no compunction about forbidding its enemies to work, driving them underground. The only people who come out ahead are criminals.

Unsurprisingly, for Heinlein, there is a considerable amount of diversity in the book. Waldo himself is disabled, obviously, and yet that doesn’t stop him from making himself one of the most significant researchers in the system. The old-timer who helps him peer into the Other World is German, something that might have been a little odd in 1942. Magic Inc features Doctor Worthington, who speaks with an Oxford accent … and is, much to the surprise of the protagonists, very definitely black. (Thinking about it, a world where Africa contributed a great deal to magical knowledge might be one where Africans got a better deal.) And one of the most competent magicians is an old lady.

Heinlein is not commonly associated with fantasy. Indeed, these two stories and Glory Road are perhaps his only magical novels. And yet, in these stories, Heinlein showed both the importance of stretching one’s mind while, at the same time, reminding us that people are human. Waldo and the heroes of Magic Inc are gleefully flawed personalities who have to fight for their victories … and, as such, they serve as an inspiration for the reader.

Overall, I have to argue that Heinlein was wrong. Waldo and Magic Inc do go together.

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