Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Heinleinian Origins

In his Introduction to Operation Chaos (New York, 1995), Poul Anderson explains that this work develops a theme that had originated in "Magic, Inc.," by Robert Heinlein. What we retain from a book read decades ago is our always incomplete and sometimes mistaken memory of its content. Such memories lack scholarly precision. However, since I am currently rereading not Heinlein but Anderson, let me exercise memory alone by summarizing what I remember, or misremember, of two Heinlein works.

"Waldo" and "Magic, Inc.," two short narratives published in a single volume, are conceptually connected though without any direct cross-reference. "Waldo" is the source of the technical term "waldo." In that story, characters perform otherwise impossible feats by accessing energy from another universe. One obvious question, not raised in this work, is whether that other universe is inhabited. "Magic, Inc.," can be seen as replying affirmatively.

In the second story, "...magic works - and is treated quite matter-of-factly as a set of technologies." (Introduction)

Thus, a transport company uses a flying carpet. Since magic does not work on or above consecrated ground, a carpet flying above a church falls straight down onto the church, thus raising legal issues like insurance claims and compensation payments. Hence, Anderson's descriptive phrase, "matter-of-factly." Supernatural realms and beings like Hell and demons exist. Near the end, our heroes visit Hell and confront Satan who convenes a gathering of all his demons.

Neil Gaiman has said that that demonic gathering inspired a similar Infernal crowd scene in his graphic series, The Sandman. In graphic fiction, of course, we do not read a description but literally see the demons as drawn to the author's instructions.

In Operation Chaos, which I am about to reread, magic works and is treated as a technology and the narrative ends with a raid into Hell. Thus, it is appropriate to acknowledge Heinleinian inspiration which Anderson does both in the Introduction and by dedicating the book to Robert and Virginia Heinlein, the latter possibly having influenced at least the name of the heroine.


  1. I think the technical term 'waldo' needs an explanation. One can be found here
    The waldo

    A typical illustration of the tools in the story is Waldo's handling of his need to perform micro-dissection on the scale of cellular walls. He uses human-sized waldoes to make smaller waldos, then uses those to make even smaller waldoes, and continues the series until he has waldoes small enough to work at the cellular scale.

    There are three main factors involved in Heinlein's description of the tools:

    They work like human hands: not with a single active lever or twenty different tools, but with components arranged and with actions like human hands. The operator puts his or her hands in "gloves" and the waldos repeat the movements of the hands.
    They work in conjunction with viewing equipment that lets the user see the waldos as if they have the size and action of his own hands. This, in conjunction with the first factor, means that waldos are a "no-training" tool: if you know how to use your hands, you can use waldos.
    They allow work to be done remotely, in the next room or many miles away, or in an environment that could kill a human or be contaminated by human presence. They can be a different size from normal human hands: either huge for building construction or tiny for micro-manipulation.

    There's a general explanation of waldos here