This is a weird story to be sure, and in a lot of ways, not very Robert Heinlein-like. It actually feels a lot like a GK Chesterton or Charles Williams type book, where a genre like mystery is overlaid on a cosmology. Heinlein not being a Christian Apologist, we’re not getting a cosmology behind the mystery, but we are getting an otherworldly (sorry, spoiled) explanation for the strange occurences in the book to explain Jonathan Hoag’s behavior. I can’t say those explanations make a lot of sense, but they’re interesting. The tone in this book is very fun and interesting, and Ted and Cynthia Randall share a lot of similarities to Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if he had them in mind here, or as would be their wont, using some other married detective pair as his model.
Waldo takes place in a future Earth where there’s a significant and necessary engineering problem that needs solving. What is that problem? Who cares? What does matter is that Waldo, a genetically (and socially) damaged genius might be the only person capable of solving it. It turns out that the issue might give him insight into his own issues. Waldo lives in an orbiting space station and years of weightlessness and zerogravity has caused him to gain a lot of weight and his muscles to atrophy. His only companion is a dog who seems to enjoy the floating station, especially since the birds he brought did not enjoy it. By the way, if you think Robert Heinlein is going to be sympathetic to Waldo’s situation, you’d be incorrect. Or rather, Heinlein believes that there’s no sympathy for one’s suffering, but admiration for one’s working to fix it. All suffering is fixable.
The solution involve Waldo tapping into ideas of parallel universes, or more so, one parallel universe that links to our universe at a kind of one to one ratio in terms of matter, but not size. This allows him to see his place in the world as a kind of conduit between the two universe’s and no longer an outcast (or more so in his mind an ascended being) and more of a gateway. Also, important, he loses some weight.
One thing that is really interesting to me in this one is how much space station seems to be the basis for the moon base in William Sleator’s The Green Futures of Tycho, where one of the characters lives in a weightless environment (according to the novel) because of what his weight would be on Earth. Sci-fi does like to judge.
In this novella, we find ourselves in a world where magic is real. Iron is not subject to magic, but other elements are, so our narrator, a contractor who never really deals in magic mostly uses iron for his construction projects. One day he is accosted and shaken down in a magic-based protection racket. This makes him mad, and the novella turns into a kind of noir detective novel where he goes looking into the shady character, and needs to delve into the magic underworld to make this happen.
This book is another weird one for Robert Heinlein, because even in his most fantasy-adjacent books, he always seems to want to tie it back to scientific understandings. From the books I’ve read, maybe only Glory Road feels decidedly fantasy through and through. The playing around with genre in this book, especially given that this book was written in the 1940s, and therefore predates the publication of Lord of the Rings and other widely mainstream fantasy novels really shows how inventive Heinlein could be at times.