I interrupted my excursion through 1940′s science fiction several entries back because I kept feeling there was something important going on in Robert Heinlein’s short novel Waldo that I hadn’t yet come to grips with. And though I still don’t have the complete answer, I’ve become convinced that the underlying dynamic of that story is to be found in the nexus between higher knowledge and elite control.
There’s a strange tension in Waldo, which I believe arises from the fact that Heinlein was confident of his own ability to cope with a universe in which nothing is certain and anything is possible but seriously doubted whether the average person could entertain such a belief without compromising their sanity.
He therefore performed a kind of fictional bait-and-switch, starting off with hints of chaos on the loose but then swapping in a conclusion where Chaos is easily reduced to Order to suit the preferences of a nobody-in-particular like Waldo. And he cut the story short before this double-shuffle could be exposed as the con job it was.
Moreover, it wasn’t just higher knowledge that Heinlein felt most people were unable to handle, but difficult facts or decisions of any kind. Over and over, his stories were constructed as arguments for the necessity of elite control.
This was not a widely-held position at the time. The period from roughly 1915 to 1970 was dominated by a struggle to eliminate the old 19th century class system, and the populist impulse was particularly strong in the late 1930′s and early 40′s. But there were always a few people who, like Heinlein, had little faith in self-government and pinned their hopes on the emergence of a new elite based on merit rather than heredity.