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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (sub-knickerae)

Underwear of the Goddesses

Another Sunday and another business trip to the far off city of Auckland. I got my suitcase ready for five days away from home. I'd packed the thing so often that I had it down to a fine art. I could, and often did, pack it with my eyes closed. A toilet bag, a pair of trousers, five shirts, five pairs of socks and five pairs of underpants. Five minutes to finish packing. Done.

“Oh, no!” cried Robin. “You're not taking the toilet bag again, are you?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled. “What's wrong with that?”

“I hate it when you take the toilet away with you,” said Robin. “I have to walk around all week with my legs crossed.”

“But look how nicely it fits in the special bag that your mum made for me,” I said. “The embroidery on the bag is just amazing – toilets of the world. I get lots of envious looks when I load it into the overhead locker on the aeroplane. All the other travellers have their toilets in plain and very dull bags.”

“Oh, all right,” said Robin grumpily. “I suppose that showing off my mum's embroidery is a reasonable excuse to take a toilet bag with you. Don't worry about me. I'll survive.”

The flight to Auckland was uneventful. There were lots of rattles and clanks as some mild turbulence tossed the toilets around in the lockers, but nothing that the pilot couldn't cope with. We landed safely and I took a taxi to my hotel. Unpacking my suitcase took less than five minutes. Hang the trousers and shirts in the wardrobe, toss the socks and underpants into a drawer, take the toilet bag into the bathroom and attach the toilet to the local plumbing. Easy peasy.

The days quickly fell into a dull routine. Get up in the morning, test the toilet, have a shower and clean my teeth. Stumble around half-asleep. Open a drawer, grope around inside and take out randomly selected socks and underpants. Put them on. Unhang a shirt and clamber into it, snuggle my trousers around my waist. Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go.

“Good morning, Alan.”

“Morning!” I said.

Work all day then go back to the hotel. Have an evening meal and test the toilet again to make sure that it still worked. Get undressed. Throw the dirty clothes into a drawer so that they are out of sight and therefore cannot frighten the ladies who clean my room during the day when I am at work. Climb into bed and read a book until I fall asleep. Once I'm asleep, put the book down, turn off the light and wait patiently until morning. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The catastrophe happened on Wednesday morning. That was when the randomly selected underpants that I grabbed looked and felt rather peculiar as they dangled from my hand. Close examination revealed that what I was holding was a pair of Robin's finest knickers that had somehow sneaked themselves into my underwear drawer and got themselves packed in my suitcase by mistake. Now what?

For the last couple of decades or so, Ben Bova has been writing a vast series of novels under the general heading of The Grand Tour. Essentially the plot of each novel is that people visit some place in the solar system, and explore it a bit. In a sense, these are all very traditional SF tales and as far as I am concerned they are very attractive stories, because I grew up in an era when space travel was actually happening and the idea of exploring the solar system was everywhere. It must have been something in the air. I have always found the thought to be a very exciting and moving one and I have always loved stories like these. So to that extent I think I am Ben Bova's natural audience.

I suppose it is inevitable that with so many books to choose from (more than twenty and still going strong) there will naturally be both highlights and lowlights to be found...

Bova is first and foremost a scientist who has steeped himself in the contemporary literature of planetary exploration. His novels are always at the cutting edge of current scientific thought. Furthermore, he has backed this up by envisaging a complex political and social environment on Earth to provide the infrastructure for all the voyages of exploration. There's some deep thinking going on in these novels.

Following trends which all of us are seeing every day on the news, Bova pictures a global scenario where the governments of the world are all made up of religious fundamentalists who are hostile to the ideas of science because they contradict the word of God as presented in the Bible or in the Koran. In America, the government is largely under the control of the New Morality who are strongly opposed to the ideas of evolution and who regard the possibility of life on other worlds as a blasphemous refutation of the ethnocentric viewpoint that dominates Christian thought. Bova himself is a declared atheist and therefore strongly disapproves of these ideas on a personal level. Nevertheless he obviously understands the people who adhere to these beliefs, and he tries very hard in his novels to come to grips with the cognitive dissonances inherent in such philosophies. In doing that, he never makes the mistake of trivialising the problem by painting only in stark black and white. Instead, and much more subtly, he gives us many shades of grey. For example, the scientist who discovers life on Jupiter and who conceives an ingenious means of communication with what are obviously sentient beings is himself a devout Christian, though not a fundamentalist one. The man's struggle to reconcile his beliefs with the way the universe actually appears to work add a real depth to the story, and the prayers he directs towards his god are genuinely heartfelt. If nothing else, this is a clever piece of characterisation. Artistic touches like this mean that the novels are never preachy which makes them very satisfying to read.

Unfortunately, Bova never really comes to grips with the fundamental question of why a government that is so strongly anti-science would continue to provide funds for scientific exploration in areas that are anathema to it. He does a lot of hand waving whenever he approaches the problem and provides a few superficial justifications but he never really pins it down because to do so would obviously destroy the basic premise on which his tales are built. But I'm more than happy to forgive him this minor structural sin for the sake of some gripping and thought-provoking stories.

Despite all these good points, I nevertheless found some of the books to be very difficult to read because Bova has an irritating tendency to descend into soap opera to pad out his stories. The grand themes that are so important to the structure are completely trivialised by this bad habit. Again, the best example comes from the exploration of Jupiter. Bova has written two novels about it. The first (called simply Jupiter) is stunningly good whereas the second, Leviathans of Jupiter, is stunningly bad – pure soap opera trash that would not have been out of place in an episode of Neighbours if that programme just happened to be set on a habitat in orbit around Jupiter...

Of the books I have read in The Grand Tour series, my very favourites are the ones set on Mars. There are three of them. Mars, Return to Mars, and Mars Life. (Bova is terrible at titles). He dials down the soap opera aspects (though they are still there) and concentrates very much on the human and technical aspects. The first novel is an utterly traditional and totally enthralling planetary exploration tale which sticks closely to current knowledge about Mars and which throws in a few interesting extrapolations as well. It ends on a literal cliff-hanger with a glimpse of something that might be the remains of a building. Is this evidence that Mars may once have been inhabited?

The next two novels confirm that once there were sentient Martians who seem to have died out in an extinction event along the lines of several that we have seen here on Earth. Again these are completely traditional sense-of-wonder stories straight from the golden age of SF. However it's important to realise that there is considerably more depth to these books than might be expected from their traditional themes. Not only does Bova titillate us with the reality of the technical and economic problems involved in keeping the exploration going in the face of attempts by the New Morality to close the exploration effort down because of its blasphemous nature, he also shows real intellectual depth in his thinking about who the Martians were and how they lived. I absolutely loved these novels.

The grand tour novels are a mixed bunch – some I've loved, some I've hated. I've found some of them profound and some of them trivial. But somehow I've just kept on reading them...

The pseudonymous J. K. Rowling returns as Robert Galbraith with a novel called The Silkworm, the second book in a series about a private detective called Cormoron Strike. Let me say up front that I absolutely loved it. It's witty, warm, grotesque and gruesome. The characters are brilliantly envisaged and spring to life off the page (I'm particularly fond of Strike's female assistant Robin and not just for the obvious personal reasons). I never guessed who did the murder until Galbraith was willing to tell me and I certainly never figured out why, though it all made perfect sense when once I found out.

The story concerns Strike's investigation into the extremely gruesome, and more than a little symbolic, death of a novelist called Owen Quine. The story is steeped in literary lore and full of in-jokes and much sarcasm about authors and publishers. Add to this the bonus of a very convoluted plot and you have a tremendously satisfying book. It has long been clear that Rowling's success with Harry Potter was not just a fluke. She truly is a clever and very talented writer. I'm looking forward to many more novels by Robert Galbraith.

Wayfaring Stranger is a new novel from James Lee Burke, probably one of the best contemporary American novelists. Unfortunately he has been tarred with the genre brush because the majority of his novels hide their depth and complexity underneath the surface of a police procedural. Nevertheless he is a brilliant observer of human foibles and a lyrical prose-poet when he describes the land in which his characters live and love.

For once, Wayfaring Stranger is not a police procedural, though traces linger... The novel opens with a brief vignette set in the early 1930s when Weldon Avery Holland, the young narrator, meets the legendary outlaws Bonnie and Clyde and ends up shooting at their car as they race away. Then we have another vignette set towards the end of the second world war. Weldon is now a lieutenant in the army. He and his sergeant rescue a girl from a Nazi extermination camp. Later, Weldon marries the girl and enters a business partnership with his sergeant. The bulk of the novel is set in the post war years and follows the ups and downs of his business and his marriage.

In an interview with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand, Burke claimed that these years were the best time to be alive in America. Post-war euphoria combined with an economic boom opened up vast possibilities. This may well be true, but I cannot help wondering about Burke's idea of what constitutes a good time to be alive. As with all his novels, he presents us with a deeply cynical and manipulative view of a world where all policemen and government officials are corrupt and big businessmen use unethical and sometimes illegal and violent methods to see off their rivals. He also presents us with a society that is so paranoid and so frightened of nasty, foreign influences that, for the mildest of eccentricities, anyone can be labelled a communist and persecuted to destruction. Burke shows us that violence is always a good answer to any problem and that the victims must take matters into their own hands for the authorities will never pay any attention to the civil rights of the little people, the disenfranchised or the people with a differently coloured skin.

I enjoyed the book a lot – it may well be one of his best. But it is so cynical and so bleak that it left a nasty taste in my mouth. Maybe it was a good time to be alive for James Lee Burke himself, but I'm sure I would have hated it.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist who worked at New York University, submitted a paper to an academic journal called Social Text that concerned itself with post-modern critical theory. The paper was a deliberately constructed piece of nonsense made up of half-truths, direct falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences which had no meaning whatsoever but which, if you squinted at them properly, looked as if they might have come directly from some of the more extreme post-modern theoreticians. Sokal was convinced that much, if not all, post-modern thinking was fundamentally shallow and that its practitioners were hiding their shallowness behind obfuscating jargon. To nobody's great surprise, Sokal's paper was accepted, peer reviewed and published, thus vindicating Sokal's initial premise.

Now, in collaboration with Jean Bricmont, Sokal has published a book (Fashionable Nonsense) which examines these ideas in more depth. The authors restrict themselves to subjects which they know (physics and mathematics) and examine attempts by the post-modernists to claim ideas from these areas as a springboard into their own. The result is at one and the same time hilarious and sad for it clearly exposes the vapidity of what passes for intellectuality in post-modern discourse.

The authors state that they are not trying deliberately to attack the philosophies and world-views of the social sciences but rather they are trying to highlight what they refer to as “charlatanism”. In particular they seek to pour cold water on the idea that some writings in the field are difficult to understand because, by their very nature, they deal with profound and difficult ideas. They feel it is much more likely that:

If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.

They approach this idea by presenting and criticising extracts from works by the major names in the field (mostly French), wherein analogies are drawn directly from the mathematical and physical sciences and are used to influence or perhaps to lend a (pseudo) intellectual rigour to the text.

The authors are particularly scathing about Jacques Lacan, a man whose name is revered in European and American universities. As it happens, apart from Derrida himself, Lacan is the only post-modernist scholar in the book of whom I have actually heard. He is often presented (and often presents himself) as a mathematician rather than as a post-modern philosopher. So I was quite pleased when Sokal and Bricmont said:

... although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His 'definition' of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish.

Then they go on to quote Lacan's rather breath-taking conclusion about his own naughty bits:

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to [the square root of minus one] of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).

The authors find this equivalence “distressing”. Personally, I deduce from it that Lacan has a purely imaginary sex life. No wonder he spends all his time spouting nonsense!

If you have ever read anything by Derrida or Lacan and their ilk and wondered in your heart of hearts if perhaps the Emperor was not wearing any clothes, read this book, have a good laugh, and rest assured that indeed the Emperor has always been as naked as the day he was born.

It seemed to me that I now had two choices, though neither attracted me very much. Either I spent my day re-wearing yesterdays shattered underpants or I indulged myself in some mild cross-dressing fetishism. On balance, the latter seemed to offer more exciting possibilities so I pulled Robin's knickers slowly and sensuously over my trembling thighs. Initially they felt rather odd – somewhat snug and constricted around the front and overly loose and floppy around the back. But once I got used to them, they began to feel more and more natural and more than a little bit empowering.

I finished dressing and then went off to work, trying very hard not to walk with a lisp. I knew that today I would have to be extra careful when I crossed the road. A friend who is a nurse tells me that a significantly large number of men who are run over and taken to hospital turn out to be wearing their wife's knickers. The nurses snigger about it in their coffee breaks. Clearly male pedestrians who wear ladies underwear are a major cause of traffic accidents. I did not want to become an object of derision to the local nurses and so I looked both ways. Twice.

I arrived safely at the office.

“Good morning, Alan.”

“Morning!” I said.

I bet you can't guess what I'm wearing underneath my trousers, I thought to myself as I headed off to my classroom. I don't know what Robin's knickers were made of, but rubbing my legs together as I walked had generated lots of static electricity and the hairs on my legs were now sticking straight up and poking holes through my trousers. I was beginning to understand why women made such a fuss about shaving their legs.

As the day progressed, I began to feel extremely fond of my new underwear. The silky, sexy smoothness next to my skin was amazingly comfortable and it filled me with confidence in my own abilities and defined my Alan-shaped place in the world. I am (wo)man, hear me roar. My students clearly detected a change in me and basked in the security of my authoritative aura.

I took lunch at a restaurant close to the office and because I was now brimming over with self-confidence, I ordered a dish I'd never eaten before. It was yummy and I decided to eat it for lunch every day from now on.

Being now fully empowered and wanting to make some practical use of the huge boost that Robin's knickers had given to my ego, I went back to the office prepared to work miracles. Clearly I was now a super hero. I mentioned my astonishing transmogrification to a work colleague. He looked me up and down and shook his head sadly.

“No,” he said, “you can't possibly be a super hero. Real super heroes wear their underpants outside of their trousers for all the world to admire. It's something to do with showing off your masculinity, I think. Superman (TM) does it all the time.”

“Ah! Perhaps I'll take a pass on that aspect,” I said as I considered the flowers embroidered in the waistband of my sexy knickers and what they might say about me if I showed them to the world. “When did Superman change his surname to (TM)? I thought his real name was Superman Kent.”

“When the movies got popular,” explained my colleague. “I think he had to do it for tax reasons.”

I went back into the classroom ready to face any computer-related questions that my students might have for me. One of them called me over. “How does this work?” he asked. “I'm very puzzled. The program keeps telling me it can't find the data that it needs.”

“Ha!” I said. “Watch this!”

Long ago I learned that when you are showing things to students you never say anything more detailed than “Watch this!” Then it doesn't matter what happens next, you can always pretend that you expected it to happen.

I cast a magic spell and suddenly the student's program began to work properly.

“Gosh,” he said, impressed. “How did you manage to do that?”

“Easy,” I explained. “I'm wearing my wife's knickers.”

He gave me a spot-the-loony look. I suspect he thought I was teasing him.

I was almost sorry when the training day came to an end. Seldom had a course run so smoothly, seldom had I had so many brilliant answers to so many detailed technical question. Some of the answers I gave were even correct. I found this astonishing.

I walked back to the hotel in a euphoric frame of mind. Again, none of the cars that roared past me noticed my unusual underpants and I arrived unscathed. I dined at my favourite restaurant and read an enthralling book. I tested the toilet. It still worked. Reluctantly I got undressed and went to bed.

Bye, bye knickers. I found myself dreading the approach of Thursday and the mundane normality of my underwear.

Both Thursday and Friday were anti-climactic in exactly the same way as each other, and then it was time to go home. I packed my suitcase with dirty clothes and rammed my toilet bag into whatever space was left over. I wended my way to the airport.

“Oh thank goodness you're back,” said Robin, hopping up and down with eagerness. The adoration in her voice was thrilling to hear. “Hurry up and get unpacked. I desperately need to go to the toilet.”

“Air New Zealand lost my luggage,” I said. “My toilet bag has gone for a holiday in Honolulu. We should get it back next month.”

Ben Bova Jupiter Tor
Ben Bova Leviathans of Jupiter Tor
Ben Bova Mars Tor
Ben Bova Return to Mars Tor
Ben Bova Mars Life Tor
Robert Galbraith The Silkworm Mulholland
James Lee Burke Wayfaring Stranger Simon & Schuster
Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont Fashionable Nonsense Picador
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