Monday, April 13, 2015

The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Six: No, This Isn't Just Composting Toilet Humor

Everything that appears in a work of fiction should be there for a reason. Everything has to support the story--the plot, the theme, the characters, the setting, the point of view. It has to do something.

This is a particular issue for people who write humor. You just can't throw random jokes into a narrative. If they don't support the story in some way, jokes will bring the narrative drive to an abrupt halt while readers stop to have a laugh. Too much of that and readers can stop feeling anything drawing them forward at all. And there's only so long they'll stick around to read jokes.

Think of the difference between old time comics who stood on a stage and just told one joke after another and a well-done sitcom in which all the humor comes out of a particular situation--a  workplace or a family, for instance. Writers of fiction want their humor to come out of a situation and not just be a series of jokes.

Today's Saving the Planet & Stuff excerpt illustrates that point. 
"So, Michael, where do you stand on the issue of composting toilets?" Amber asked.
    Michael stopped dead in his tracks and stared at her for a moment. Then he said, "What are my choices?"
    "Composting toilets—those things with a container of some sort under the seat so when you flush, nothing goes very far? Then you throw a handful of bark mulch or some leaves in there with the crap, and it all decomposes?"
    Michael started to grin. Okay! he thought ecstatically. She's coming on to me.
    "What? You think I'm joking?" Amber asked, mistaking the look of joy on Michael's face for appreciation of toilet humor.
    "Well, it doesn't sound much like a joke," Michael admitted, "not a very funny one, anyway. But it is kind of … an odd thought."
    "You've never heard of composting toilets, have you? Well, you're lucky I brought it up, because you're going to. It's, like, a big political issue here," Amber explained. She took a deep breath as if getting ready for a long speech. Her sweater rose up as her lungs—and her chest—expanded. "At one end of the spectrum you've got your people who want to see all human waste transformed into nutrients in a box under their johns and used to fertilize public parks and gardens so they can feel a sense of unity with their environment. At the other end you've got folks who don't understand why the federal government isn't committing big bucks to researching ways to vaporize their
doodie like they do on Star Trek so they'll never have to think about it again."
    "They vaporize doodie on Star Trek?" Michael asked.
    Amber looked up at him. "Haven't you always been curious?"
   "I don't actually watch Star Trek much. It's my little brother's thing. He builds rockets, designs space stations in art class, watches Star Trek—"
    "Cool kid. Well, if you're here very long, the subject of composting toilets is going to come up. You'd think we were talking stem-cell research the way they carry on about it. It's a very divisive issue."
   "This is a joke, then," Michael said while thinking, Cool kid? Eddie?
    "Try laughing when you hear someone talking about it. You'll see how funny it is."
The composting toilet thread in Saving the Planet & Stuff is not just an opportunity to squeeze in some toilet talk. It supports one of my themes, the effort, thought, and decision-making that goes into attempting to live an environmental lifestyle. It also supports character because it will eventually illustrate what a mania--how intense--Walt is.

I actually have seen a composting toilet, though it was at an outdoor park, not in an office where Walt was hoping to install one. I believe it was at the Ecological Park of the Acadian Peninsula in New Brunswick, Canada. My recollection is that they had some in little sheds like the one you can see to the left in this picture. That would explain the pipe you see to the left of that building's roof.

And, by the way, we are an engineering family. Of course, the issue of managing sewage on Star Trek has been addressed in our home. Probably at our dinner table. We've always wanted to see an episode in which Scottie or Geordie has to deal with the engineering crisis that would come about with an epic sewage treatment failure. Anyone else notice that the treatment system never gets damaged when the Enterprise is under attack?

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