Waldo and Magic, Inc., two separate short novels, have a subtle relationship: they share no characters or situations, but the new framework of reality that is established in Waldo serves as the stage upon which Magic, Inc. is played out.
The reader is given a brief glimpse of an extraordinary man, a fabulous professional dancer who — oh, by the way — is a famous brain surgeon in his spare time. He is asked by a reporter how he became a dancer and his response is a flashback that forms the rest of the novel.
Wireless distribution of power has become the norm. North American Power-Air's (NAPA) transmitters radiate the power through the atmosphere, and DeKalb units collect power, making it available to motors and other powered devices.
James Stevens, Chief Traffic Engineer for NAPA, has a big problem. The DeKalb power receptors are failing unexplainably and at an alarming rate, resulting in vehicle crashes and municipal shut-downs. Having exhausted all other solutions he turns to Waldo Jones, a brilliant, eccentric, wealthy, inventor who lives in a private space station in low earth orbit.
Afflicted with myasthenia gravis from earliest childhood, Waldo lacks the muscular strength to walk or lift things with his arms. By living in the weightlessness of space he is able to move freely. His primary invention is a system of remote-controlled mechanical hands which the world has nicknamed "waldoes."
Waldo does not like people very much, and welcomes few visitors to his home. Stevens contacts Dr. Gus Grimes, one of Waldo's few friends, who agrees to take him to see the famous recluse. Grimes has a concern of his own: he is convinced that the massive power transmissions through the atmosphere are damaging everyone's long-term health. During their visit Waldo agrees to work on both problems, eventually determining that they are related.
Waldo learns that an old farmer, Gramps Schneider, has been able to repair one of the DeKalb receptors, apparently by magic. Waldo braves the harsh effects of earth gravity to visit the strange, largely incoherent old man to try to learn his secret.
Waldo's eventual solutions? He deduces the existence of a parallel world that can provide massive amounts of power. The technique for tapping into that power involves mental gymnastics and positive thinking, and the power is available not only for running lights and motors, but strengthening human muscles. Is it magic? In a sense, yes; this other world is the locus of all things supernatural. With effort, Waldo overcomes his disability and misanthropy, eventually becoming the talented, popular dancer/surgeon introduced at the beginning of the story.
Waldo is a cranky, bossy genius who eventually overcomes his shortcomings and makes positive contributions to humanity. Interestingly, a number of other Heinlein characters seem to fit that description as well (Lazarus Long comes to mind in particular). Is there something autobiographical about each of those characters — reflections of Heinlein himself? Probably so.
What if the supernatural was absolutely commonplace? What if you could go to the closet and choose between a dress made by magic and one made in a conventional factory? Imagine all the work saved if you could erect magical bleachers along a parade route, then just make them vanish when they were no longer needed.
In Waldo humankind has found the doorway into "the other world," giving legitimacy for the first time to the supernatural. Each human being exists simultaneously in both the real world and the supernatural world. While everyone potentially has supernatural abilities, only a few are specially adept at summoning and controlling those powers; those people are the magicians. In Magic, Inc., the supernatural has become routine, a part of normal human activity and experience. Magicians are available for hire just like plumbers.
Synopsis, Magic, Inc.:
The tale begins in a hardware store, where a mobster is threatening the store owner, Fraser, with "bad luck" if he fails to purchase "protection." Fraser chases him off, but feels a bit worried about the matter and goes to discuss it with his friend Jedson, a clothing dealer who is an amateur magician. Sure enough, the next morning Fraser's worst fears are realized: his store is in ruins. Jedson looks at the damage and determines that it was caused by magic. What has been done by magic can be undone by magic, so they contract with a local magician, Biddle, to come repair the damage.
After studying the site a few minutes Biddle declares a magical reconstruction impossible. A young magician, Bodie, there to watch the excitement, tells Fraser of a witch he knows who might be able to help. The small old woman, Mrs. Jennings, comes to the site of the store and summons the magical agents who destroyed it — the king of the gnomes, a fiery salamander, and a water sprite — and forces them to reverse their magic.
In the coming days Fraser finds that his "bad luck" is continuing in more subtle ways: small accidents and little difficulties that continue to eat up any profits. It becomes apparent that he has come up against an organized crime syndicate that is working to get a monopoly stranglehold on the magic business. By refusing to join the "association" and use only its certified magicians Fraser has angered "the mob." Mrs. Jennings comes to his aid and brings along a specialist, Dr. Worthington, an Oxford-educated Congo tribesman.
The syndicate gathers more and more power nationwide, redesigning its informal association into "Magic, Incorporated." In state legislatures all over the nation, through typical bureaucracy and racketeering -- buying off some legislators and manipulating others — Magic, Inc. is designated as the only legal provider of magical services. It drives honest independents out of business, hikes prices way up, and keeps a substantial part of the "take."
Not willing to accept defeat, Fraser, Jedson, Jennings, and Worthington fight on, discovering that Ditworth, the mob boss, is not even human, but rather a demon from the Half-World. If they can prove that, his syndicate can be defeated. They undertake a plan to unmask Ditworth and eventually apprehend him in the Half World. Having broken the rules of both worlds, Ditworth is neutralized and his mob collapses. The world is saved and business returns to normal.
As in every Heinlein works, the droll humor drips off every page.
A work of fantasy rather than science fiction per se, this book makes us
ask serious questions about our world: What is real? Could the supernatural
be as real as the natural? It also serves as an indictment
of the power of government: its bureaucratic nonsense, its appeal
to the meanest elements of society, and its inevitable tendency to squash