"— We Also Walk Dogs"
by Robert A. Heinlein
 

Review by
Ron Grube

Astounding Science Fiction, July 1941
as by Anson MacDonald

collected in —
The Green Hills of Earth

The Past Through Tomorrow June 2004

  
A General Services company

The key to Big Money these days is to specialize, to pick out one job and get very skilled, very well trained — or have lots of longevity. Please note that these are not mutually inclusive, but short life or long, the trend is to increased specialization. One current television commercial pokes a little fun at a NASCAR driver who supposedly never learned to change his own tires.

Over-specialization leads to a large number of people who can't perform more than one or two tasks with any skill at all. Writers have made jokes about the helpless "idle rich" class; but what we have now, to a great extent, is a working class making excellent money but having few skills outside their own jobs. We need, more than ever, the old-fashioned handyman who can do a great many everyday things needed to keep the wheels turning.

Robert A. Heinlein foresaw this kind of need clear back in 1941, and wrote a barbed little short story about it. "We Also Walk Dogs" talks about the handyman class gone corporate, with a few not-so-flattering references to rich folks thrown in for seasoning. It's a story about capable people finding a way to do 'most anything (legal) that others are willing to pay for.

The company is called General Services, and the story title comes from their motto. They do everything from walk your pet to outfit the next expedition to Pluto. Simple and standard tasks are catalogued, and may be accessed by simply phoning an operator. Complex items are handled by a team of "unlimited operators", who are paid to make the connections between what needs to be done and how to do it. The company even pays a capable but not particularly ambitious scientist, Dr. Krathwohl, to simply keep up with various scientific publications and the people involved in various branches of science.
  

Synthesis of knowledge

This whole scenario, to me, represents a synthesis of various branches of knowledge to form new and useful connections, something Heinlein and others have spoken of at length. One example I'm always reminded of is Serendipity Inc. in Poul Anderson's novel Satan's World (1968). Anderson's firm, using a supercomputer, buys and sells knowledge; with the computer always searching for connections. In "We Also Walk Dogs", Heinlein simply has more of his stock of Capable People to make those connections and achieve what also might be termed serendipity in many cases.

This is one of Heinlein's competent-people stories, the kind of thing I've always been fond of from any author. Of course, he was writing for John W. Campbell as editor of Astounding, one of the great invention-a-page people himself. Heinlein, though, diverged from Campbell's own earlier super-science writings by injecting a little romance and human emotion. "We Also Walk Dogs" has a poignant tone in the way one of the characters is coaxed into an invention he was reluctant to undertake. The story is short enough that I don't want to ramble on for fear of giving it away. In just a few pages, we have invention, work ethic, competent people, a little romance, and a neat showing of human emotions. No one could do it better than Heinlein.

Synthesis and the question of encouraging more and diverse invention have been of interest to me personally for many years, as well as the research possibilities opened up by the Internet and local area networks. A quick look around the Net will show many other people also thinking about this. Heinlein and a few others encouraged me from my pre-teens to think "out of the box". I feel we should encourage more reading and research along these lines, before too much over-specialization takes place. You could do a lot worse than start with Robert A. Heinlein.

  

© 2004 Ron Grube


  

[In September 1940, Heinlein] also offered Campbell an oddity story [not yet written] that may have been inspired by Forrest J. Ackerman's "Assorted Services" project. Ackerman had given up a regular paid job and for nine months in 1940 collaborated with a friend, Ted Emsheimer, offering to do "anything for anyone, from borrowing a book to reminding about birthdays." Heinlein's General Services company also offered miscellaneous personal services for a fee — to compensate for the personal servants who had disappeared from middle-class American life in the last thirty years — but took on much larger projects as well.

He warned Campbell:

... There is a story there, but it seems to be a Sinclair Lewis story rather than an Astounding story. ...

William H. Patterson, Jr.
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century
  Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve

  


  
"We Also Walk Dogs" was added to the Future History series
only upon that chart's fourth revision in 1951.

see —
James Gifford
Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion
  

  
Ron Grube fixes things at
Serendipity Electronics
in Carlin, Nevada

Robert A. Heinlein at Troynovant
  


 

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