Chaos is King!

on September 29, 2011

Heinlein’s story Waldo is endlessly fascinating but also endlessly frustrating, because it is so self-contradictory. It starts off as a sharply delineated roadmap of the shift from reason to chaos — but then abruptly turns on its heels and attempts to stuff chaos back into the box of scientific materialism. And there’s no obvious reason why.

The story presents us with two very different representatives of higher knowledge. One is the ancient hex doctor, Gramps Schneider, who still holds by the assumptions of the reason vision and apparently regards the Other World as a literal spirit realm. The other is the mad Dr. Rambeau, who embraces chaos and sees the universe as a place of total uncertainty where anything can happen.

Waldo, in contrast, has absolutely no awareness of higher knowledge and believes only in scientific materialism.. He dismisses Rambeau as unhinged but is willing to give credence to Schneider’s statements — at least to the extent that he can redefine them in his own materialistic terms.

He therefore starts by assuming that “everything Schneider had to say was coldly factual and enlightened, rather than allegorical and superstitious.” This leads him to the conclusion that Schneider must be describing an alternate universe, “a literal, physical ‘Other World’ … even though he had not used conventional scientific phraseology.” And on that basis, Waldo develops a theory in which both occultism and Fortean anomalies can be plausibly explained “from the standpoint of a coextensive additional continuum.”

A similar argument can be found in many SF stories of the period where superstitious native beliefs are shown to have a rational scientific foundation. In this case, however, Heinlein leaves the reader with a not-so-subtle implication that Gramps Schneider is the person of genuine knowledge and Waldo the hapless native trapped in an overly-limited frame of reference.

But if Heinlein knew better, why did he make Waldo his viewpoint character? And why did he end the story on a note of irony, with Waldo happily announcing that he has given up researching the Other World and is dedicating his life to having fun, rather than resolving the questions he has raised?

Heinlein had a reputation for weak endings, which often seem to have stemmed from an unwillingness to acknowledge his own most heretical beliefs. And in this case, despite his private thoughts on the matter, he may have wanted his readers to accept Waldo’s version of things — so he cut the story short before it could be challenged.

But whatever Heinlein’s motivation, the result was that he had allowed the nature of reality to be defined by an immature, self-indulgent, overgrown child with no sense of human relationships. And the most frustrating part is that in a weird way, Waldo’s structuring of reality appears to hold true for our own present-day world as well.

A few days ago, I came across an article about the “free network movement,” whose goal is to keep the Internet independent of government and corporate control. One paragraph in particular caught my eye:

“At the heart of the movement is the idea that seemingly mundane technical specifications of Internet routers and social-networking software platforms have powerful political implications. In virtual realms, programmers essentially set the laws of physics, or at least the rules of interaction, for their cyberspaces. If it sometimes seems that media pundits treat Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Apple’s Steve Jobs as gods, that’s because in a sense they are — sitting on Mount Olympus with the power to hurl digital thunderbolts with a worldwide impact on people.”

So the next time Facebook arbitrarily rearranges your personal social reality, you can blame Waldo for setting the standard.

I’m only half serious, of course. I don’t truly believe that Heinlein hexed our entire society with this one story — and as influential as his fiction has been on several generations of bright, self-centered young geeks, the world would probably be much the same without Waldo’s example.

But at the very least, Heinlein’s stories of the early 1940’s are highly significant because they are located precisely at the point of divergence between Chaos Mark I and Chaos Mark II.

When chaos was accepted as a dominant vision of our society in the 1970’s, it was chiefly in the form of Mark I — with its tendency to perpetuate the manipulative outlook of scientific materialism — while the more holistically-oriented Mark II remained on the fringes. But now that the democracy-and-chaos partnership is collapsing about our ears, the philosophical inadequacies of Chaos Mark I can no longer be ignored.

Perhaps the most glaring of these is its lack of any moral basis. Prior to the twentieth century, morality had always been seen as enforced by a spiritual realm which rewarded good deeds and punished evil ones. The scientific materialism vision, however, not only denied the existence of a spiritual realm but effectively ruled out any alternative source of morality.

The problem is that in the universe of scientific materialism, all causality can be reduced to atoms bouncing off one another. This means that our own actions have no history and no consequences. What matters is results, and how you got there is irrelevant. Morality becomes either an illusion to be rejected or, at best, a thin veneer of high-mindedness over a core of ruthless pragmatism.

Heinlein would eventually attempt to explicitly define morality on just such a basis. As the narrator of Starship Troopers (1959) explains, “Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics — you name it — is nonsense. … The universe will let us know — later — whether or not Man has any ‘right’ to expand through it.”

Heinlein may not have had this argument fully worked out in 1942, but the “right” of his Starship Troopers to expand throughout the galaxy appears identical to Waldo’s “right” to define the Other World to his liking: He was there first, he’s got a patent on the idea, and his definition will stick until somebody else comes along to smack him down.

Precisely the same attitude, of course, informs the present-day outlook of the United States, both globally and in our electoral politics.

The best alternative we have at the moment to the ruthlessness of Chaos Mark I is the more holistic perspective embodied in Chaos Mark II. As viewed through the prism of holism, everything that exists is interconnected and events are tied to one another in elaborate feedback loops. This means that nothing we do is without consequence. Every action changes the configuration of the overall system for better or for worse — and that change is eventually transmitted back to us in kind.

This perspective could not have been articulated in the early 40’s, but the idea of a kind of karmic feedback, whereby we essentially reward or punish ourselves through our own actions, was already present in “wacky” stories like Fredric Brown’s “Paradox Lost,” in which Shorty McCabe reaches five years into the future to give himself a helping hand.

The negative side of that same coin had already appeared a few months earlier in Kuttner and Moore’s “Time Locker” (Astounding, January 1943). In that story, a crooked lawyer uses a fourth-dimensional locker constructed by the drunken inventor Galleger to hide some stolen bonds — and in the process unknowingly sticks his hand into “the middle of next week” and crushes himself like a bug.

In the 1940’s, this story could only seem either wacky or blackly ironic. It even describes Gallegher himself as an “essentially amoral” figure who “seemed to watch, with a certain wry amusement, from a vantage point of his own.” But somehow, despite his indifference to ordinary standards of behavior, Gallegher’s contrivances always manage to punish the guilty while sparing the innocent.

But if Gallegher’s special talent is to serve as a kind of trickster demigod, then who is really exercising that power? Is it Gallegher himself? His superhumanly perceptive subconscious? Or it is the universe at large, with Gallegher providing an open conduit whenever his rational mind is sufficiently incapacitated by liquor?

The same question of ultimate agency hangs over many of these early 40’s chaos-based stories. It’s present not only in the Gallegher series and in “Paradox Lost” but also in Waldo — at least by implication.

Waldo’s final explanation for the failure of the aircars is that their operators, fatigued by overexposure to broadcast radiation, had lost confidence in the scientific principles behind them. That’s nonsense, of course — as nonsensical as the current tendency by the leaders of our own society to blame our continuing financial doldrums on a lack of public confidence in the economy.

But even aside from the mystery of the falling aircars, there’s also the question of why it would be magic, of all things, that would come rushing in as faith in science weakens. It almost seems as though magic was just itching to be let loose, waiting breathlessly at the threshold of the Other World for the opportunity to pour itself out into ordinary reality.

The mad Dr. Rambeau suggests as much when he proclaims, “Chaos is King, and Magic is loose in the world!” Whether we call it Magic or call it Chaos, it is clear that something inconceivably powerful has been released and will not meekly allow itself to be shunted aside by the mere likes of Waldo.

And that may be the real reason why Heinlein had to end his story where he did, with Waldo believing he has everything under control. Heinlein could handle Gramps Schneider’s outlook — but he was well aware it was of an earlier era. And Rambeau’s wholehearted embrace of chaos may have simply been more than Heinlein was prepared to handle.

Note 1: My analysis of Waldo draws heavily upon the insights developed by Alexei in a long essay (available at our website) on another Heinlein story from this same period, “Solution Unsatisfactory.” Although that story is “hard” science fiction and very different in tone from Waldo, it is characterized by much the same might-makes-right philosophy, unwillingness to speak frankly about the motivations of the characters, and unresolved ending.

Note 2: I suspect that when I say “I don’t truly believe that Heinlein hexed our entire society with this one story,” I may actually mean that I don’t believe it in terms of ordinary reality but do believe it in terms of what I’ve been calling “myth space.” As Gramps Schneider says, when dealing with the Other World, certain things can be true and not true at the same time.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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