Arthur C. Clarke, among other things, is famous for a set of axioms known as “Clarke’s Laws.” The most quoted of these is undoubtedly Clarke’s Third Law, which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This idea has been roundly exploited throughout the history of science fiction, but never quite as creatively as in Waldo, the novella by Robert A. Heinlein. Waldo’s premise is essentially an inversion of Clarke’s Third Law; it’s as though Heinlein sat down to answer the question, “what if sufficiently advanced magic were indistinguishable from technology?”
Waldo takes place in a near future where wireless radioactive power runs everything from cars to telephone networks, a bright future of limitless and faultless energy. Inconveniently, however, major systems are failing: airplanes crash, cars self-destruct, power grids go down, all for no apparent reason. Scientists practically lose their minds over it; by definition, the power should be mathematically faultless, as unerring as the laws of physics. The problem is brought to the era’s de-facto savant, a technical genius who suffers from myasthenia gravis and lives in a weightless dome in space — our titular Waldo.
I’ll save you the machinations of Waldo’s technical details and subplots, and give you this: Waldo determines, after much head-scratching, that the issue at hand is mental, not physical. The machines are failing not because of any fault of their own, but because the people operating the machines no longer believe they work. The only way to fix them, which he does, is simply to think them back into functionality. To believe that they work.
Waldo finds, much to his surprise, that magic is real, and that it has been “set loose on the world.” The things which scientists call “energy fields,” “radiation,” and “mathematical dimensions” are actually qualities of magical reality; after all, Heinlein asks, what is the difference between a quantum-physical “other” dimension and what adepts of the arcane might refer to as “another world”? Might the distinction merely be semantic? Indeed, Waldo was written during the early years of quantum theory, and it’s clear that Heinlein saw something mystical in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Suppose…that the human race were blind, had never developed eyes. No matter how civilized, enlightened, and scientific the race might have become, it is difficult to see how such a race could ever have developed the concepts of astronomy. They might know of the Sun as a cyclic source of energy having a changing, directional character, for the Sun is so overpowering that it may be “seen” with the skin. They would notice it and invent instruments to trap it and examine it.
But the pale stars, would they ever notice them? It seem[s] most unlikely. The very notion of the celestial universe, its silent depths of starlit grandeur, would be beyond them. Even if one of their scientists should have the concept forced on him in such a manner that he was obliged to accept the fantastic, incredible thesis as fact, how then would he go about investigating its details?
— Waldo, on thinking outside the box.
The machines in Waldo’s world function because science, like magic, is iterative: it dictates reality rather than describing it. And, conversely, they break down because people have ceased to believe as resolutely in the infallibility of scientific progress. From the Englightenment onwards, humanity had simply sublimated its dependence on magic, sorcery, and witch-doctors onto the new illuminated discipline of Science; everything, from the laws of physics to the mad whirling of electrons, was incanted into existence by collective belief.
Heinlein’s story is about a crisis of the spirit, a moment in human history where the confidence of our scientific men and women can no longer hold the physical world in place. In order to resolve this crisis, people must accept the magical, bringing it back together with science in the mutually functional relationship where it has always belonged, and from which it has long been alienated. In Waldo’s thesis, magic was aborted by the rational world before it had time to become science.
Dealing with magic is slippery business for sci-fi, even for a master like Heinlein (in fact, the second story in my edition, “Magic, Inc.” tackles similar themes but is essentially worthless), because magic and fantasy operate in a different conceptual framework. Science-fiction generally needs to take place in a rationally continuous world, one in which even a radical future can be reasonably extrapolated from our current existence — that’s what makes sci-fi political, among other things. Fantasy, on the other hand, has free reign to invent the laws of physics from scratch, often taking place in a different sphere entirely, and incompatible aspects of reality can always be explained away. This, in my mind, makes it a genre that is relatively incapable of being critical.
Waldo manages to escape this pitfall by finding a way to make magic (and hence the irrational) coexist peacefully, even naturally, with science (and hence the rational). I find this consolidation of left and right brains, of ancient and modern, of left-hand and right-hand paths, to be a monumental achievement. It’s maybe even the Shangri-la of science fiction, which is, at its core, art about reason — magic about science.