Sunday, March 29, 2009

Have mop, will travel. Dirty Jobs of the past and future.

My mind is in the sewer. Again. It's a confluence of things. Isn't it always?

Yesterday on Twitter, the "Squeeee" factor was in full force. Shuttle astronauts have returned from the International Space Station bearing a precious gallon (it might have been a pint) of recycled perspiration and urine for taste testing.

It will have to be passed by an inspector, no doubt.

This is new? I think not. In Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, mention was made about Roman soldiers on the march having to drink "the stale of horses". We all know how important bodily fluids were in "Dune".

Warning. Don't click the links if you don't want to see.

On Reality TV, we've seen Bear Grylls doing his Fear Factor style demonstrations that a human can drink almost anything if he is thirsty enough. In Germany (unless someone was pulling my leg) I was told that part of a pharmacist's training requires her to drink urine. Not recycled urine, either. Moreover, I understand that some medical conditions or treatments deplete a person's healthy intestinal flora, and that a familial fecal transfusion is required to repopulate the patient's intestines.

There's something else. Oh, yes. A mild scandal over colonoscopy equipment at some hospital somewhere in the civilized, modern, developed world where the equipment was allegedly used up to a thousand times without being cleaned. (Or was it simply not "sterilized" between jobs?)

Which brings me to Ancient-Mystery author Gary Corby, and his edifying blog about one of the most unpleasantly long drawn-out methods of execution ever devised. Since my mind was where it was, thanks to the news, I wondered (aloud, on Facebook) whether the equipment... the blunt stakes... were reused.

Now that, I thought, would be a Dirty Job. I began to play (and still am playing) with the heroic and romantic potential of a Carl Markus Rovius --name chosen for the oxymoronic fun potential for political satire-- of a roving execution-pole cleaner. He wouldn't be your traditional alpha male of historical or alien romance. On the other hand, the Discovery Channel's Mike Rowe has possibilities, doesn't he?

In homage to George Orwell, I might call my budding anthology "Down and Out Along The Appian Way" or "Down and Out Along The Silk Road". Puns intended.

Could a modern day Dirty Job translate into an Ancient Historical? I think so. Whether or not it would catch on is another matter. How about into science fiction? Presumably there will still be dirty jobs in the future, and on other worlds, and even on space arks, that cannot be automated or assigned to intelligent robots.

After all, why does the recycled water from the international space station have to be taste tested by a human on Earth? Is it morbid curiosity? Is our physics and chemistry technology not up to automating or outsourcing to the end-user that sort of analysis? If not, why not?

If we are still doing as the Romans did, it seems likely that some things may never change. So, what dirty jobs will always be with us? What new ones may emerge? Who will do them? What will be the social status and salary level of those who do the necessary and nasty work? After all, some jobs simply must be done well or the economy, and more importantly, the plumbing could collapse.

For the time being, my editor has found my Tigron Empire nasty enough without any need to investigate the sort of discipline and interrogation methods that my tyrannical god-Princes such as Tarrant-Arragon would probably sanction. The methods would be barbaric. If sweet reason prevailed, it wouldn't be rational that one person would be supreme ruler because his father (and his father's father etc) ruled before him, even if his birth ensured his access to the best possible education and job-specific training from birth... or would it?


  1. I once read a story about a space station society in which the person who cleaned out the waste disposal apparatus, even though no actual contact with the "dirty" aspect of the job was involved, was an "untouchable" in that society. The protagonist, a visitor to the station, was asked to do the job because they currently didn't have a waste disposal technician (he was sick, had died, or something). Nobody in the local population was willing to take on the task and become a pariah. The visitor agreed. The twist at the end was that, after he'd completed the job, he discovered he was then treated as a total outcast, viewed with revulsion by everyone, even though he wasn't even a member of the society.

  2. Oh, gosh, I wish I had more time, because I'd love to read a story involving dirty jobs, where the focus was largely on them, as in Margaret's example. That's a superb worldbuilding issue to think about, Rowena!