More Baths on “Dune” and Five Dystopian Classics

Dune frank herbert newish 71c5xWv-fkLThere was much interest in my post on Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune, probably because I asked the question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”

So here’s a little more background.

Dune was a groundbreaking ecological novel, originally published in 1965 by Chilton Books, a press known for auto repair manuals.  (it was rejected everywhere else, according to the afterword of my paperback.)  Herbert, a journalist, got the idea for the novel while researching a magazine article on a government project in Oregon.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture planted “poverty grasses” (which grow in sandy soil) on the crests of dunes to stop the drifting of sand on to the highways.

Fascinated by the idea that the change of an ecosystem could green a planet, he wrote Dune.

Set on a desert planet, this SF classic focuses on the paucity of water and the exploitation of a planet’s resources for the mining of a valuable, addictive spice called Melange. The rich live luxuriously, with access to all the water they want, while the native Fremen survive by wearing “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of moisture, from sweat to urine.  A radical planetologist, Kynes, plots a scientific system that several centuries on will green the planet.  But after the assassination of the sympathetic Duke Atreides, Kynes, too, is killed.  The duke’s priestess-witch concubine Jessica and psychic son Paul flee to the desert, where Paul becomes a T. E. Lawrence-style leader and champion of ecology and the Fremen culture.

Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert writes in the Afterword that Dune sold slowly in the ’60s but eventually became a best-seller.  It received a good review in The New York Times and was promoted in The Whole Earth Catalogue.

He writes,

By the early 1970s, sales of Dune began to accelerate, largely because the novel was heralded as an environmental handbook, warning about the dangers of destroying the Earth’s finite resources. Frank Herbert spoke to more than 30,000 people at the first Earth Day in Philadelphia, and he toured the country, speaking to enthusiastic college audiences. The environmental movement was sweeping the nation, and Dad rode the crest of the wave, a breathtaking trip. When he published Children of Dune in 1976, it became a runaway bestseller, hitting every important list in the country.

I in high school, a very clean young woman!

Here I am in high school, a very clean young woman!

It is easy to see why this hit a nerve in the ’70s.  In  my hometown, we read The Environmental Handbook and The Population Bomb (two books still pertinent today).   The professor/political activist family I lived with for a few months in high school recommended Dune.  They were very aware of the advertising culture (soaps, detergents, deodorants, makeup) that defined American lives and made us heartily dislike our bodies.  They showered only a couple of times a week, while I admired their philosophy but continued to shower daily and washed my hair at least twice a week. “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.

But if my use of water was high in those days, imagine how it increased over the next decades.   By the ’80s, I washed my hair every other day. In the ’90s, I washed my hair daily.   It is only in recent years that I have rethought this and bathe according to my activity level.  (Today  I rode into a fierce wind that whipped my hair into my eyes and my bike chain fell off twice, so I came home with filthy hair and hands covered with grease.  Thank God for water!)

In answer to yesterday’s question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”, two commenters mentioned that they do not wash their hair everyday, because it is not good for it, while another says she washes it daily and considers it her water therapy. (I find it relaxing to sit in a hot bath, which is even more taboo than showers in terms of water usage.)  In an article in Buzzfeed, “How Often You Really Need to Shower (According to Science)?”, two dermatologists said that showering too often can dry out and irritate skin and wash away the good bacteria that naturally exists on your skin.  Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a Boston dermatologist, said, “We overbathe in this country and that’s really important to realize.  A lot of the reason we do it is because of societal norms.”

Yes, we want very much not to smell our bodies.  Isn’t it wonderful that we live in such a luxurious clean culture?  But one wonders:  how long will it last?  Probably through my lifetime, but I have real doubts about the future.

And now here is a list of five more classic dystopian novels.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver1 Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  Is Kingsolver the best writer working in the U.S. today?  In 2013, I wrote, “When Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change. Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is. Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family. She creates a plausible fictional overview of a problem that will not go away.   One day the heroine, Dellarobia, a bored housewife, is on her way to a rendezvous with a hot telephone repairman. She sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees, but it turns out to be monarch butterflies that have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change. Soon Dellarobia is working with a scientist and graduate students who have followed the butterflies.  It changes her life.

2 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  Many of you know Shteyngart from his short stories and memoirs in The New Yorker.  This is a brilliant satire of a dystopian future where everyone is tuned constantly into apparati (essentially smart phones which everyone has to carry or be arrested as a traitor). The dystopia is a reality where attention is fragmented by cyber-lives.  Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society and tries to interest his Asian girlfriend in books. Reading books is a suspicious activity: books “smell.”  And unfortunately Lenny’s “fuckability” score, which is posted on a screen when he enters a bar, is low.

Super Sad True Love Story3 City by Clifford D. Simak.  This classic SF novel is divided into eight linked stories, told from the point of view of genetically altered talking dogs who are guardians of the history of an Earth abandoned by humans.  The first chapter,   “City,” is about urban sprawl. Very few people in the late 20th century remain in cities – atomic airplanes and helicopters have replaced cars and made it possible for a dwindling population to live on big country estates and commute hundreds of miles to work. Only renegades are urban dwellers: old-fashioned residents reluctant to give up the traditional ways and farmers displaced by hydroponic farming who have developed their own urban culture . A crisis occurs when an insanely controlling police force decides to burn down the farmers’ houses. Webster (the first of many Websters in the novel) supports the rebel farmers and gives a speech on how the city is a dying structure, and “the automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it.”

City by Simak 61e1-z87MhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4 Kevin Brockmeier’s graceful novel, The Illumination, is reminiscent of Saramago’s Blindness. The beauty of the language, the strangeness of vision, and the starkness are almost mystical. Unlike Blindness, however, The Illumination is not a political allegory. A twist of science fiction keeps this novel spinning in the world of story.

Divided into six stories, the novel is an elegy for the ill and dead, underpinned by rage about why people must suffer.  In Brockmeier’s alternate world, human pain suddenly begins to glimmer and glow. Every bruise, wound, cut, lesion, toothache, cancer, or heart ailment lights up. As people walk down the street, you can see their illnesses glinting and shining. Pain sometimes defines people, but does not make people kinder.

The Illumination Kevin Brockmeier 0224093371.02.LZZZZZZZ

5 Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. One of the best-written post-apocalyptic novels of all time, it is set in Australia in 1963 after a World War kills everyone in the northern hemisphere. The winds will bring the fallout to Australia soon, and all will die of radiation by the next September.

The characters in this chilling 1957 novel are well-developed, and the plot is horrifyingly realistic–people worried about the Bomb then, as they should now, and Shute gives us one of the best arguments for disarmament I have ever seen. The popular writer Shute’s book was categorized as fiction instead of science fiction, and that gave it a wide readership.  The movie is good, too.

onthebeach by nevil shute

Frank Herbert’s Dune and How Often Should a Water Conservationist Bathe?

“To the working planetologist, his most important tool is human beings… You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”–Frank Herbert’s Dune

frank herbert 50th anniversary dune-coverFrank Herbert’s Dune, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, is an ecological classic.   In the early 1970s, I lived for a few months with a family of professor/political activists, who, in their free time, organized a food co-op, played guitar, and read the science fiction novel DuneDune is set on Arrakis, a desert planet. Not only did I find it a compelling story, it taught me about water conservation.  Still, it was hard to see what was in front of my eyes (and occasionally my nose) during my extremely self-conscious clean teens. I had a glimmer of why my friends showered only a couple of times a week, but didn’t  make the personal connection and continued to shower daily.   “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.  Their water bills undoubtedly went up with me in the house..

I recently reread Dune.  It is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.

dune by frank herbert tumblr_nf6rpmXyZ01tcujuyo1_1280At the center of the book is the Atreides family, who have recently moved to Dune to rule part of the planet. During a coup,  Duke Leto Atreides is killed, but his wife,  Jessica, a trained priestess with psychic powers,  and son Paul, trained by his mother in matters of the mind, escape to the desert.   The learning and mastery of ecology is the difference between life and death.

The usurping baron kills tens of thousands of people, including Kynes, the radical planetologist, who is seen as a threat because of his ties to the Fremen.  Left in the desert to die, Kynes meditates on water and Arrakis, in a scene reminiscent of stream-of-consciousness  scenes  in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when men wounded or dying become extra-sensitive and alert to the beauty of the world they are leaving.

Herbert’s style is usually straightforward and brisk, but here is one of his more poetic passages.

He tried to think of moisture in the air—grass covering this dune… open water somewhere beneath him, a long qanat flowing with water open to the sky except in text illustrations. Open water… irrigation water… it took five thousand cubic meters of water to irrigate one hectare of land per growing season, he remembered.”

The reader of Dune wants to become more ecologically literate, but she inevitably wonders:  HOW WOULD MY HAIR LOOK?

Herbert does not mention hair much, but he writes frequently about the odors.  At one point, a character tells the Atreides,

“There’s little to tell them from the folk of the graben and sink. They all wear those great flowing robes. And they stink to heaven in any closed space. It’s from those suits they wear—call them ‘stillsuits’—that reclaim the body’s own water.”

Ah, the unwashed smells of the early ’70s.  I  did know a few men who occasionally stank.  The women never stank:  they no doubt kept themselves cleaner, with quick dabs of the washcloth.   But here’s a fun fact:  even though radicals showered less, no one used deodorant.  Even I, the mad showerer, didn’t.  We weren’t going to support capitalists who made us feel bad about our bodies!  (And there really is no need.  We still have water.)

The climate is in a worse mess now, as was predicted, but my guess is that people use more water, not less.  According to the EPA, the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day.  Good God, that  is a lot.  In the 60s, we washed our hair once or twice a week.  By the time I was in my twenties, most washed their hair daily.  All that washing of hair increases the time of the shower or bath.

Because  I was rereading Dune, I was intrigued by a recent essay in The Guardian by Donnachadh McCarthy, with the headline,”I shower once a week. Here’s why you should too.”  McCarthy statistics about the amount of water used in daily baths and showers and the cost.  He points out that the daily bath

is terrible for the environment and our bank balances. That’s one reason I have reverted to a weekly shower, with a daily sink-wash that includes my underarms and privates. But there are health consequences too.

He writes that soap products can damage the skin and cause medical problems.  It is true:  I myself am allergic to some soaps.

We cannot all be like Donnachadh McCarthy, but are we the last generation to enjoy this luxury of daily baths? Think of the drought last summer, and the paradoxical paucity of clean drinking water during the frequent floods in the Midwest.   If only water conservation could be made to seem glamorous.  Never going to happen, I’m afraid!