Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sci-Fi from the Bottom Up (A Talk for Loncon 3)

For those who missed it, or those who want a refresher, here are the notes from ‘From The Bottom Up: The Fantastical World of Human Waste’ delivered at Loncon on 17 August, 2014.
Disclaimer: The words that actually came out of my mouth may or may not bear any resemblance to the original plan!


Hello and thank you to everyone who has not only stuck it out until 9pm but also chosen to come to a talk about toilets over going to the Hugo Awards Ceremony!
I expect this makes you all extremely intelligent interesting and classy people, so I hope we’ll eventually get on to a rousing discussion about the role of science fiction in inspiring new real world innovations. But first I’m going to speak for a bit about why I pitched this talk, and my own research into the subject.

I currently run London Loo Tours, which is a walking tour of public toilets. The whole thing started as a joke. If you have been around London you’ll know that a lot of the public toilets here cost anywhere from 20 to 50p to use… which if you are a poor and miserly student like I was when I moved here can sometimes be dinner money! I thought the tour might last a month and that would be that, but a year and a half later it is more or less my full time job, and I have found the topic more bottomless than I could have imagined. It encompasses such a wide range of topics; health, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology…  (and many other things ending on –ology!)

But when a friend suggested I pitch a talk on the subject for Loncon even I was initially a bit stumped. In my experience science fiction and fantasy tend to be about space ships and dragons… Not sewer systems and poo!

But then I came across the following quote from the website of the Bill and Melinda Gates re-invent the toilet challenge which was launched in 2011 to encourage engineers to find new solutions to global sanitation:

“Although we can fly people to the moon, 40 percent of the world’s population - 2.5 billion people - practice open defecation or lack adequate sanitation facilities.”
~ Dr. Doulaye Kone

I want you to picture the scale of the problem for a moment… imagine that a third of you aren’t allowed to use the toilets in the ExCel centre. When you have to go, you’re going to have to go outside and find as private a place as you can. Most of you are going to end up practicing open defecation (which in laymens terms means having a shit on the side of the road.)

In 2002 the United Nations set a series of development goals meant to be achieved by 2015. The most off-track of these is 7c: to halve the number of people without access to a toilet. While sanitation is often the under-valued ugly duckling compared to it’s much sexier cousin ‘access to clean water’ it is one of the best investments a country can make.
A lack of sanitation is the number one killer of children in developing coun­tries, and leads to decreased productivity and higher school drop-out rates, particularly among young women.

Coming back closer to the world of Science Fiction: several months back I saw an interesting headline in the Evening Standard:

‘Young engineers more likely to be inspired by Iron Man than Brunel’.

A study carried out by Career Academies UK on students ages 16 to 19 had found that the young people tended to cite films such as Transformers, The Matrix and Star Wars rather than historical figures having inspired them to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

The article took a sort of despairing doom and gloom tone… what a world are we coming to when young people care more about fantasy than their history.

But I thought “AWESOME!!!” At last some validation that two degrees and tens of thousands of dollars spent on learning how to entertain people might be justifiable from the perspective of social good after all!!!

Science fiction tends to look outwards towards the stars, and not back. But anyone who is suitably nerdy has probably at some point asked themselves where the toilets are on the star trek enterprise.

There is a whole wiki page devoted to this subject! A couple highlights:

“The brig aboard Starfleet ships included facilities such as a sink and toilet, which were enclosed behind the wall until needed. A sign above the toilet read "do not use while in spacedock." (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier)”

According to Jonathan Frakes during the "Journey's End: The Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation" special in 1994, the Enterprise-D had only one bathroom and he proceeded to point to it on the large cross-section of the Enterprise-D in the main engineering set.

Or on the TARDIS… this one is harder to find answers to on forums, but there have certainly been plenty of parodies due to the similarity of the shape of the Police Box and the portable toilet! In fact there was an interesting investigation in September 2013 on Tardis Toilet Hire…  a company which had been trading for 15 years. BBC carefully protect their logo and the name, which they trademarked in 1976, but the company argued that his logo was not in any way meant to resemble the time and space traveling machine (okay, maybe it had a light on top and windows, but it was orange so couldn’t possibly be copyright infringement.)

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a zero gravity toilet was included, complete with instructions for use. Descriptions include devices such as a “Sonvac cleanser” and “the uroliminator.”

In researching this talk I also stumbled across several forum threads on the flushable toilets in Mass Effect. (see here)

But toilets are usually thrown in as light relief. They rarely take center stage.

While humans or aliens couldn’t function the same without them, they are either too taboo to talk extensively about, or too mundane a part of every day life to be included as key points in the story. So we have to be content with the fact that they are there somewhere and function exactly the way they are supposed to (as evidenced by the fact that there isn’t poo sitting in the hallways or - in zero gravity contexts- floating through the ship!)

One notable exception to this rule of sidelining sanitation in the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy is of course Terry Pratchett. Pick up any of his disc world books and you will almost without fail find some reference to a lavatory, cesspit, or dung-heap. He has even written ‘The World of Poo” (a companion to Snuff) which features young Geoffery’s adventures learning about the wonderful world of human waste.

The Pratchet character with whom I have the strongest affinity is, of course Harry King… Piss Harry to his friends and King of the Golden River to most others.

Harry’s fortunes are based from enterprises dealing in human waste. To quote from The Truth:

“The real foundations of his fortune came from when he started leaving empty buckets at various hostelries around the city… he charged a modest fee to take them away when they were full [… ] in a small way, making the world a better smelling place.” (The Truth, 107)

But Harry doesn’t stop there. The passage goes on to say:

 “There is very little, however disgusting, that isn’t used somewhere in some in­dustry. There are people who want large quantities of ammonia and salt petre.” (ibid)

It’s a model not dissimilar to the Roman urine collectors who used to leave pots at the corners of streets, which they could then sell on for tanning, dying and whitening teeth (there is excellent Latin poetry about how if someone had a very white smile you knew exactly what he had been gargling!)  The practice was so common that the Roman Emperor Vespasian actually imposed a tax on Urine in the year 70AD.

Pratchett’s sources are reasonably grounded in History. I pestered his publisher awhile back to see whether he could enlighten me on the matter and he very kindly wrote back to tell me that sources included Henry Mayhew’s Labour and the London Poor and Dorethy Hatley’s Water in England (Not Vespasian as far as he knew… but I still think there is some resemblance in the business model!)

Anyone who has read the Diskworld books will be aware that Ankh Morpork bears a striking resemblance to 19th Century London. This is, coincidentally or not, about the time when the flush toilet started becoming popular. While the flushing toilet was in many ways one of the greatest life-saving devices ever invented it also served to divorce humans to some extent from their excrement.

Have you ever stopped to think about how cool toilets actually are? You go for a poo or a wee in a porcelain bowl (and how often do you even eat off porcelain), push a button and it magically disappears never to be seen again (at least by you!) We do this five or six times a day, flushing over a third of the clean drinking water in the UK!

We can do this largely because in the year 1858 London faced the Great Stink, when the pollution of two and a half million humans became too much for the city to handle. It was a very hot June and the Thames heated up and smelled so bad that the problem could no longer be ignored. The man called upon was engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette who built London’s Sewer System, which carried all the waste out of London to the east (where they still actually dumped it directly into the Thames, but at least not in the city centre, and it could be washed out by the tides.) This is the same system we still use in London today, though it is now treated before it is released back into the wild.

It was the beginning of a new revolution and sanitation as we know it today, but the end of night soil men, gong farmers and urine collectors, and in some ways the end of a natural and practical recycling loop.

There is a second reason I am fond of Terry Pratchett in addition to his un-squeamishness when it comes to the scatological. It is the way he constructs his worlds, and the rules which they follow.

A key idea Pratchett often speaks about is Narrativium.

“Humans add narrativium to their world. They insist on interpreting the universe as if it’s telling a story. This leads them to focus on facts that fit the story, while ignoring those that don’t.”
                        (Science of Diskworld I:233)

 Narrativium is how we make sense of which facts of our world to take into account. In Diskworld things happen in particular ways because that’s how it makes sense for them to work. A commonly cited example is that dragons breath fire not because they have asbestos lungs (or similar such nonsense) but because everyone knows that’s what dragons do.

I find it singularly appropriate therefore that such a practical approach is taken to bodily functions and what happens to the waste. It makes a good kind of sense. It is a harmonious recycling loop, where nutrients come back round.

As a general rule this sadly cannot be said of our round-world narrative. Re-using our own waste is no longer seen as a natural idea, but something rather odd and a bit gross.

This may well be changing over the next few decades.

Though no entrepreneurs have yet plumbed the depths of Harry King’s monopoly on the market entrepreneurs are beginning to show an increased interest in the subject. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s  ‘Re-invent the toilet’ challenge not only focused on finding new non-waterborne means of waste disposal includes a remit to:

 “[Remove] germs from human waste and [recover] valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients.”

A current example of award winners are a group of researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory who have developed a means of charging mobile phones using urine. The researchers say:

“One of the problems is going to be people’s perception to actually using their own waste as a potential source of fuel. There is a definite yuk factor.”

I wonder whether story telling might serve as inspiration not only for engineers and inventors but for influencing our every day behavior.

 There are over 7 Billion people living on earth. On aver­age it is estimated that the world’s population can produce 2.8 billion gallons of urine in a day: enough to fill up 4,200 Olympic swimming pools! So whoever can find a way to harness that resource and reuse it will be onto something fantastic indeed!

I leave you with the following question, though of course our discussion may take many additional directions!

1) How has science fiction inspired you?

2) What role do you think stories, films, games and fantasy worlds might have in influencing real life behavior?

3) And of course just for fun… any favorite science fiction toilet moments?

There followed a hugely engaging 45-minute discussion with many contributors from the audience. I was not able to transcribe most of it, but have included a very few highlights and notes below (and may add more as time allows.) A tremendous thank you to all who shared stories!

 Do feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section, on twitter (@londonlootours #lonconloos) and over the dinner table!

Further mentions of toilets/scatological in Science Fiction:

Babylon 5 includes a scene at a urinal. 

Robocop includes a toilet scene (viewable here)... note the CCTV in the toilet!

The Martian by Andy Weir stars an astronaut, botanist and engineer stranded on mars who must improvise with the available resources (including human waste) to survive.

The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss deals with human encounters with Aliens called the Utods who worship their own feces.

A further Terry Pratchett influence is The Specialist.

The mysterious origins of the word 'Loo':

The origins of the word “Loo” are frequently attributed to the Medieval cry of “Gardy-loo” (derived from French “Gardez-l’eau… the polite thing to shout before emptying a chamber pot out the window.)

This was called into question, and an audience member supplied a link suggesting more recent origins.

Museums and Exhibitions worth visiting:

Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke on Trent
National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Recycling Nature's Bountey

Text to be added shortly, but here, in the meantime is my poster for London's Science Fiction convention!