Magic Inc. (Part 2): Is My Favorite Sci-fi Author Racist?

It is official, I have not been out of the house for an entire month! And no, I am not in “quarantine” because quarantine implies that you either have, or have been exposed to, a virus. I suppose quarantine is a catchier phrase than “social distancing,” but it is still misleading. I am social distancing my ass off… and I should add, that I am not going crazy as I had assumed I would. However, I did discover that it takes about 12 days of being within 100 feet of my partner at all times to become annoyed by them…

But you’re not here for that. You’re here because last week I wrote about Robert Heinlein’s Waldo, which has accompanied Magic Inc. in many adaptations and reprints. There are a few overarching themes in both that justify this pairing such as; both deal with an otherworldly sort of mysticism (magic isn’t quite the right word), both rely heavily on the theme of individualism, and both are kind of problematic.

Magic Inc. is different from Waldo in the sense that its magic is part of everyday life, and is even a bit mundane. It is a world full of magicians, witches, demons, and various other  fairy tale creatures. The story hovers on the border of fantasy and has a political angle. The main character, Archie, is a small business owner who only dabbles in magic. He is the quintessential “everyman” in a world of flight and fancy.

When he accompanies his friend Jed to Congress to lobby against a corporation threatening his (and all of his fellow compatriots’) business, he is just as exasperated and confused with the power games and bureaucracy inherent in the government as we are today. Although written 80 years ago, it is surprisingly modern. The only reason it has not aged well is its descriptions of African culture and an exoticized “other.”

He meets a PhD and “witch smeller” named Dr. Royce and is immediately taken aback. Dr. Royce had been recommended to Archie to help him clear out the “bad magic” hanging around in his shop. First of all, he seems genuinely surprised that Dr. Royce is a large black man, the phrase “Of course, why shouldn’t he be black?” is reminiscent of the “I’m not racist, I am just surprised that you are a person of color,” argument.

This, in addition to Archie referring to his hired contractors as “negroes,” smacks of 1940’s white exceptionalism, with African culture depicted as an exotic “other.” When explaining Dr. Royce’s magic techniques, Heinlein balances the slippery act of being legitimately interested and defending African folklore and traditions, and stereotyping them. The odd stereotypes withstanding, Heinlein does call out the destruction European nations have wreaked upon various non-European cultures via colonialism.

The verdict? Dated language, modern concepts. I give this story a 3.9/5 because I’m ambivalent about how much this book is “of its time,” and because there are some unnecessary parts that just drag out too damn long. Waldo Inc. gets a 4.5/5.

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