Putting the life back in science fiction

Silly summer thoughts, Part 1: new Dune movie

Just a brief one.  I recalled today that a new adaptation of Dune is currently in the works, random deities help us.  I’m not a huge fan of the series, but I did like the original Dune, for what it’s worth.  It’s gotten rather more humorous as I found that Frank Herbert’s idea of a dune was based more on his coastal Oregon dunes than on the Sahara, that his idea for the sandworms came from maggots eating a mushroom, and the Bene Gesserit and their blue eyes were, erm, inspired by his ingestion of (hopefully) non-wormy mushrooms.  Those were the days.

Thing is, I’m a grumpy ecologist.  I’m still trying to figure out how you get their metabolism to effectively run backwards so that they exhale/fart oxygen (I guess they breathe in CO2?).  And a sandworm hundreds of meters long snacking down on a human is about as close in optimal foraging strategy as humans chasing after individual ants.  Ant hives, yes, but individual ants?  Anteaters don’t bother with them, and sandworms shouldn’t bother with individual humans thumping across the dunes.

Still, I wanted to have a little fun, it being a hot afternoon in July.  So I started thinking about those still-suits, which capture and filter sweat and urine and recycle is so that the wearer can drink it again.  Talk about a sweat bath!  If you’re wearing one of these damned contraptions, you’re going to get heat stroke in short order, unless there’s some mechanism for getting the heat out of the recycling body fluids and off into the air.  I may be wrong, but I think that takes energy?  And aren’t electrical signals supposed to attract sandworms?

So, let’s have a little fun redesigning Dune so that it makes physical sense.  If I wanted to make Arrakeen wear, I’d start with an umbrella.  Back when I was surveying in a desert area, I started carrying and using a tough, black umbrella (umbrella means little shade, incidentally).  The difference was startling: I went through about three liters less water per day, and considering that the umbrella weighed 10 ounces, it was a massive savings in weight and comfort.  At midday, the umbrella was too hot to touch, which was why it was better than a hat: that heat wasn’t touching my body.

So yes, I think the Fremen all need umbrellas.  Big ones, preferably unbreakable, spiked for combat (random product placement), and covered in sand-colored camouflage.  Or silver, for maximum heat reflection (actually, these last would be good for strolling astronauts too.  The sun can be fierce without an atmosphere).  Heck, I’d like one of these myself.  Hmmm.

Then we go to clothing.  Get rid of the still-suit unless they’ve got some really good battery packs for heat exchangers (in which case they’ll stand out like IR sore thumbs, even in a hot desert).  Instead, they should be wearing long, loose clothing, either in sand camouflage or possibly silver.  The idea is to minimize heat input, not to minimize water loss.  To go with the heat-reflecting clothing, they also need boots (Or platform shoes.  Or short stilts) to get their feet off the ground, so that they’re not gaining heat from the very, very hot sand.  For water, they’ll have to get it externally, but there are a variety of ways of doing that, most having to do with cooling air so that it can carry less moisture and adding nucleation sites for the water to bead up and run down.  So I guess they’d have to wear water packs along with everything else.

It’s a nice thought, gangs of fremen roaming the desert with umbrellas, silver robes, and platform boots, fighting with brolly in one hand and crysknife in the other.  Maybe it’s more David Bowie than David Lynch, but at least it’s a little more…sensible.  Really.

It’s amazing how silly being sensible can look sometimes.

If you were redesigning Dune (or the space epic of your choice) to be more sensible, what would you do?  Maximizing both functionality and silliness gets extra points.


15 Comments so far
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Thanks for the details. I didn’t know enough physics/chemistry to criticize Dune on that level, but even when I was a kid, the ecology seemed ridiculously simple.

Comment by nancylebovitz


Don’t go outdoors in the daytime.

Since there’s very little water, things ought to cool down pretty fast at night, so you won’t sweat a whole lot. But your breathing will remove a lot of water. So use a CO2 scrubber and re-breathe your old air some, and at the necessary rate you remove water from the waste air you expel and add water to the dry air you add.

If this seems like a lot of trouble to go to, remember that water is wealth. To the point that strangers found in the wrong place are likely to be killed for the water in their bodies. And without a stillsuit you’d be losing anywhere from half a gallon to two gallons of water a night. If you traveled you would have to carry that water with you.

The stillsuits are electrically powered, by foot pumps. Every time you take a step, you generate energy as your weight forces down some sort of lever that resists. Walking would be more tiring than usual, and maybe you’d sweat after all. Of course you have to make sure you don’t make a pattern when you walk. So it’s already tiring. Keeping your balance. Occasionally running. Stillsuits would take a lot of getting used to.

Yes, an infrared sensor ought to pick up stillsuits easily in a cold desert. Presumably the fremen would have those sensors. Their seitches would also be easy to find by outsiders, and would give a clear sense of how much activity was going on in them. A cloak could hide the direct signal in one direction, but nothing could hide the plume of warm air above an outdoor fremen unless there was enough breeze to disperse it. Unless it was hard to detect by starlight.

I can’t explain sandworms. But cube/square would apply with a vengeance since they are so big. Surface area versus volume of muscle. Friction wouldn’t slow them as much as it does us.

A sandworm that ate most of the sand in its path would not be displacing so much sand. And sometimes they have to eat sand to get their food, which is photosynthetic organisms in the sand or little-makers. How does light get below the top millimeter of sand? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t. Their photosynthesis might not look as green as ours does. Otherwise people would comment on the green sand.

Comment by Jonah Thomas

I’m still trying to figure out how you’d generate much energy stepping down onto a yielding surface like sand. You might get more energy by having a corset, where the energy is generated by the person struggling to move in it. Or you can have each stillsuit wearer have a kite flying about 1000 meters above them, where there’s more likely to be wind. That would generate a lot of energy….

Also, personally, I don’t like wearing respirators. Since the air is relatively still in there, and sweat needs moving air to evaporate, you tend to just build up a lot of sweat in the mask rather than having it wicked away. That’s one of the many problems with stillsuits, actually. There’s also the problem of desalinating sweat and urine (in the canon suits), both of which take energy..

Finally the sandworms are basically bollocks, especially the ones that are 400 meters long. In reality, even a four meter long burrowing predator won’t work very well, although that doesn’t stop zoologists from having fun with the idea (look about halfway down, or search for Graboidus).

Comment by Heteromeles

“I’m still trying to figure out how you’d generate much energy stepping down onto a yielding surface like sand.”

I dunno. Was there a diagram? I vaguely remember a caption or something that mentioned heel pumps. (They got energy from breathing too. Every breath would be an effort.)

If you pick up your foot and a spring opens up a lever, and your weight pushes it down when you put your weight on it, then it doesn’t matter what you’re standing on — that lever is going to slowly get squeezed if you can stand at all. You can squeeze fast if you don’t want much energy.

Sweat in respirator — I was thinking that you’d have dry air you breathe in, and then the moist air you breathe out gets dried. But if your body can tolerate it, simpler to just leave the air at the equilibrium moisture so you don’t lose water in your breath.

If part of the respirator against your skin gets permanently sweaty, just get used to it.

Any of your body odors that don’t get filtered out will build up greatly.

If you drink alcohol just before sealing a stillsuit, hardly any of the alcohol will be lost through your lungs, it will quickly reach equilibrium. The alcohol will remain until your liver metabolizes it.

Urine is an issue. If you evaporate it like sweat, toxic volatiles will build up if you make any toxic volatiles. If you keep the urine products dessicated enough, they won’t decompose much to produce ammonia etc.

Comment by Jonah Thomas

@Jonah. Biology solved the urine issue. I see no reason why urine could not be made potable and the urea and excess electrolytes separated out. After all, the ISS does this at fairly high efficiency for the astronauts to reduce water shipments.

I think the sweat in the respirator is a non-issue. The same problem occurs in a spacesuit but the water is removed to keep the faceplate clear. Real spacesuits don’t fog up like movie spacesuits. I see no reason why a technical solution couldn;t be used. It might even be something simple like non-wettable materials that allow the water to run quickly into the suit pockets for distillation.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I reread the description of a stillsuit in Dune, and it’s even funnier than that. It’s supposed to:
–In a thin sandwich of materials, pull the water away from your skin, pull the heat out of the water, pull the salt out of the water, and move the water to central collection pouches where you can sip it back in. And all of this is powered by the expansion of your lungs to breathe (must be fun to run in), and…? Stepping?
–It also processes urine into water, but says nothing about catheters.
–It also processes feces into water, but say nothing about how you move the poop away from the anus in a clean way.

My conclusion is that the Fremen all had serious cases of diaper rash. And we won’t even ask about how their women dealt with periods.

In any case, I think Maxwell’s Demon designed the stillsuit, because there’s some magic going on here.
–Moving heat out is great at night when the outside air is colder than the body, but it would suck in the equatorial desert, where you’re trying to use the motion of your body to power the air conditioner that’s keeping you from overheating. This isn’t just a matter of stillsuit wearers having to be in perpetual motion to stay alive, I don’t think there’s enough stray energy in human motion to power an A/C, a desalination unit, and urine-to-water and feces-to-water facilities. Indeed, I don’t think there’s enough energy to power any of this.

Also, don’t forget that we’re in Butlerian Jihad land, so it’s not kosher to have a little chip controller that keeps the thing homeostatic. So if you don’t readjust the suit, that cooling function that keeps you from overheating during the day will freeze your ass at night.

I think silver robes, a big umbrella, and platform shoes would work better, don’t you?

Comment by Heteromeles

Also enjoyed the original Dune more than the sequels. Anyways, don’t recall that the worms were attracted by electrical charge thought that they were attracted by vibration hence the ‘thumper’.

A couple of ‘improvements’ came to mind right away:

Umbrella – make it of solar collecting material for starters to provide shade and electrical energy. Use the same materials for stillsuits.

Crysknife – make this of a material that would not only cut but somehow mess up the electrical charge either by shorting the circuit and frying your opponent or by stealing their electricity thereby leaving them helpless.

Lastly – my overall impression initially and still is that Herbert’s Dune was an attempt to use a planetary ecology as a major character in his story rather than provide a detailed snapshot of any one particular ecology.* Believe he was successful in doing this.

* Okay – originally thought he was referencing Saudi Arabia and the Edwardian WW1 era British Empire re: politics, wealth distribution, religion, etc. Sort of a Lawrence of Arabia with aristocratic pedigree gone feral/native.

Comment by SFreader

“Anyways, don’t recall that the worms were attracted by electrical charge”

They got attracted by shields, so the Fremen didn’t use shields. I don’t remember them getting attracted by other electrical equipment, assuming that shields were electrical.

Comment by Jonah Thomas

Looks like there’s a 2008 book, The Science of Dune, that goes into all this, and I could even check it out from the library. Unfortunately, I’m about to get snowed under with an EIR response and a bunch of stuff for a conference next spring that I volunteered to help with, so I think I’ll go onto the next silly summer thought to cogitate on.

Comment by Heteromeles

Just read the intro – sounds worth picking up, so thanks for bringing this to my attention!

Comment by SFreader

Regarding getting water: Allegedly, you can cool something by setting it at the focal point of a parabolic mirror and point the mirror at a cloudless spot of night sky – radiative heat, and the thing you are radiating against is the cold dark, cosmos. So if you have umbrellas andcoat at least the inner side with siver, you are a good way there. The hing you cool is of course your collector for water …

I don’t really think that works (= I don’t think you get much water that way, the princip0le is sound), but it is a lot less implausible than the stillsuits.

I don’t see wh the sandworms need to by carnivores, might be feedin on the chemotrophs in their belly that in turn digest all the tar sands? Would of course be a a net oxygen consumers.

Maybe the whole ecology is fr from a stable equilibrium, the last major bllom of plant life a billion years ago lead to the tar sands we see, while most free oxygen is physically dissoleved (not chemically bound) ins certain types of sand, and slowy given of to the atmosphere.

Comment by Martin

The technology I’m reminded of is, I think Andean: they’d freeze-dry their potatoes in the Andes by putting them in roofless towers. The walls held out residual warmth from the surrounding land, meaning the potatoes lost heat to the dark sky above, and thereby became freeze-dried (having the air well below freezing didn’t hurt either). I think the key here is making sure there’s only a really cold space to lose photons too, which is kind of hard to do with only an umbrella.

As for the worms, they’ve a bunch of problems: shoving an 80 meter wide head through sand is the big one. Supposedly they’re something like filter feeders, eating their young, well, the zoo”plankton” of the sand, sand trouts, and whatever. Then again, if they’re farting oxygen and taking in food, they also are running against entropy, which is a really neat trick.

Comment by Heteromeles

Re: Worms and sand –

Don’t recall the detail about Dune sand composition but am aware that different sands on Earth have different ‘slipperiness’/flow rates.


Given that these worms evolved on Dune, part of the species’ evolution probably included one or more specific adaptations that helped improve its flow through various native sands.

As for how far-fetched that a particular cludge might end up being so successful, just look at how weird and inelegant yet successful homo sapiens is vs. the rest of the animal kingdom despite HSS’s hodgepodge of one-of adaptations.

Comment by SFreader

“So if you have umbrellas andcoat at least the inner side with siver, you are a good way there.”

The Fremen used something like that to collect water from the night air. They basicly grew plants inside transparent stillsuits, and gained water from dew collectors.

With today’s technology it might be more efficient to use solar cells to generate power, and grow the plants underground with LEDs. I’m not sure. I guess it depends on which products are easier to manufacture out of sand etc.

Comment by Jonah Thomas

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