The Road to Mars

Cover image from

The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel by Eric Idle
Pantheon Books, 1999
Price I paid: Some Amazon funny-money

What makes humans bark?
Is the funny bone funny?
What is the algebra of comedy?
Did the sitcom originate with the ape?

Carlton is an android (a 4.5 Bowie Artificial Intelligence Robot) who works for Alex and Lewis, two comedians from the twenty-second century who travel the outer vaudeville circuit of the solar system known ironically as the Road to Mars. His problem is that although as a computer he cannot understand irony, he is attempting to write a thesis about comedy, its place in evolution, and whether it can ever be cured. And he is also studying the comedians of the late twentieth century (including obscure and esoteric acts such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus) in his search for the comedy gene.

In the meantime, while auditioning for a gig on the Princess Di (a solar cruise ship), his two employers inadvertently offend the fabulous diva Brenda Woolley and become involved in a terrorist plot against Mars, the home of Showbiz.

Can Carlton prevent Alex and Lewis from losing their gigs, help them overcome the love thing, and finally understand the meaning of comedy in the universe? Will a robot ever really be able to do stand-up? As Einstein might have said, nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of laughter.

from the jacket flap

I’m breaking my usual format a bit this week. This isn’t the first time I’ve decided to re-read a book for the purposes of review—I think that honor goes to the X-Men/Star Trek crossover—but this is the first time I’ve done that with a book I read multiple times because I loved it so much.

I remember the first time I saw this book sitting on the shelves of my local library. I was 15 or 16. I had just learned about Monty Python (I started with Holy Grail, like most people of my generation, I imagine). I was already a longstanding sci-fi fan. One of my dream jobs was to become a stand-up comic (this didn’t pan out, but I got on stage a few times in college. I hope to God no tapes exist). This book hit every single correct note for a teenaged me.

I re-read it several times. Mostly, I think, it was for the comedy wisdom. There’s a bit of it (although less than I remembered, upon re-reading) and I’ll get into that a little more in a bit. I also liked the jokes. I repeated a great many of them to my school peers.

Later on the book sort of faded from my memory. A few points stuck around, and a conversation with a buddy who also remembered the book brought it rushing back into my brain (thanks, John). And so, being me, I wondered, Is that book as good as I remember it being?

So I picked up a digital copy and here we are!

So…is it? How does it stack up now that I’ve swapped my rose-colored lenses for bifocals?

(Actually I had bifocals in high school, but damned if a little thing called the truth is gonna get in the way of a mildly clever line.)

Well, the thing is…the book doesn’t hold up. I’m not going to say it’s bad. It’s not. It has good bits! It has things to praise. But the plot is convoluted, the tone is all over the place, and a lot of the jokes just don’t hold up anymore. It’s just not great.

For one, it’s got about four or five plots all running at once, with a lot of characters between them. That’s not inherently bad, but in this book I can’t bring myself to care about most of those plots. One or two are good and the ones I want to follow. It probably says something that those are the plots I remembered at all upon this re-read. A lot of the book was like a first time.

The book also has a lot of ideas and themes running around, some of them good, others a little more meh. A lot of the time it just feels like Idle was trying to do a little too much with this book, trying to fit in a few too many things.

One of those things is the journey of the narrator, a guy named William Reynolds. He’s a professor of “microanthropology,” a job he defines as studying “the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes.” That’s pretty good, and a neat idea! What are the long-term genetic results on our species of things like television, easy intercontinental travel, or birth control?

We don’t get much into Professor Reynolds’s research on those matters, unfortunately. Instead we get a lot of his griping about Molly, the woman who just left him because he’s obsessing over something else. That something else is Carlton.

Carlton is an android that, around eighty years before Reynolds’s narration, works for a pair of stand-up comedians named Lewis Ashby and Alex Muscroft. The duo flies around the Solar System playing gigs and hoping to make it big. It’s while working for them, and studying them, that Carlton begins to work out a Theory of Comedy. As the book progresses, we see a lot of Carlton’s ideas develop. He eventually submits them as a postgraduate thesis to the University of Southern Saturn, who rejects it.

It’s Reynolds who comes across the thesis so many years later and is floored by it. He works throughout the novel to take the book to print and make everybody see the genius that Carlton was. At least, it starts that way. This is one of the few books I know of where the narrator has a character arc. The arc goes

  • The world needs to know about Carlton. I will get his book into publication so he gets the attention he deserves.
  • Maybe the world isn’t ready yet? What if I published the book under my name and then revealed the truth later?
  • What if I skipped that revelation, too? After all, it’s the ideas that are important, right?

At the top of the book, Reynolds is commenting on how fame is a terrible thing that ought to be avoided, a tragic result of mass media. At the end of the book he’s dreaming about his Nobel prize and the things fame will give him access to.

All this would be great if it were the bulk of the book. The story of a dude starting with an obsession that falls into, or reveals, self-obsession. But this is, like, a sixth of the book.

Carlton, whom I should mention is an android built to look like Let’s Dance-era David Bowie, along with Muscroft and Ashby, get sucked into a political thriller sort of plot involving murder, political violence, an interplanetary cruise liner, terrorism, mass murder, and a refugee crisis.

There’s so much that goes on that I won’t even try to sum it all up in any kind of comprehensive way. Muscroft and Ashby get a gig on the gigantic interplanetary liner Princess Di, performing for what they call LOLs (little old ladies). Things go south and they end up losing not only that gig, but all their future gigs. Ashby meets a woman named Katy and they hit it off.

After they lose the gig, they head to an asteroid named H9, where the duo started out their careers. After a bit of sleuthing and the discovery of a transmitting device on their ship, the Johnnie Ray, H9’s bubble dome is destroyed, killing many and leading to a refugee crisis when the survivors are all picked up by the Princess Di. Also, Katy is there for some reason, doing something suspicious, and when she’s found (I think Carlton finds her) she’s in a bad way, left for dead or to be killed by the collapse of H9’s atmospheric dome.

The refugee situation lets us learn more about the star of the Princess Di cruise, an aging diva named Brenda Woolley. She treats the crisis as an opportunity to self-promote, turning herself into “Our Lady of the Refugee Camps.”

This plot, and the investigation of who exploded the bubble dome by some space cops I couldn’t keep distinct in my brain, and Katy’s attempts to reconnect with the father she thought was dead (who is one of the terrorists), and the revelation that the terrorists were Silesian miners from Mars protesting their Martian homeland from being turned into a sea by crashing asteroids into it, all mean that the plots I cared about—some comedians and their wacky Bowie android—fall by the wayside for a long time. Muscroft and Ashby basically serve as viewpoint characters for a lot of the time they’re on the page, and even that becomes dreadfully thin as things progress. Everything in this book feels stretched to the breaking point as the climax approaches, and then the climax isn’t really all that great.

The terrorists seize a Brenda Woolley refugee benefit show to make their demands to the Martian government. They say that if Project Iceman, the project to drop ice asteroids on their homes, isn’t cancelled, they will take one of the asteroids and drop it on a major Martian city. Carlton, dressed as Brenda Woolley (there are a lot of transvestite jokes that surround Carlton’s outfit that aren’t cool), storms the stage and shoos the terrorists off to the welcoming arms of some cops. The Martian government agrees to their demands anyway, although it’s also revealed that they’ve discovered a new way to make that sea that won’t require ice asteroids anyway.

Meanwhile, the Reynolds narrator plot, which sort of winds itself in and out of the narrative randomly, is a view of a man falling apart at the seams. He has submitted Carlton’s work, under his own name, to several publishers, who have responded with interest. He also sent a copy to the Nobel committee. Unfortunately, he’s realized that Carlton is, in fact, still alive in his own time. It would be unlikely for the android to not notice that his life’s work has been stolen, so an unhinged Reynolds finds him and kills him and then commits suicide.

What a bummer!

The book ends with Carlton, with the coaching of Muscroft and Ashby, stepping on stage to do the first-ever stand-up routine by an artificial intelligence. It’s kind of sweet.

See what I mean by the tone being all over the place, though?

The part of this book I remembered most was Carlton’s division of comedians into two categories, White Faces and Red Noses. This grabbed me as a teen and continues to do so. It’s only a minor part of his Theory of Comedy, and for all I know it’s not original, but the categorization is pretty fascinating to me. Idle, through Carlton, even breaks down a lot of modern comedians into those groups for our edification.

White Face comedians are cerebral, often sardonic. In duos or groups, they’re the straight man. By contrast, the Red Nose comedian is crude, rude, and physical. They’re “the funny one.”

In the context of this book, Carlton labels Ashby as the White Face and Muscroft as the Red Nose. The tall skinny one and the short fat one. Other White Faces might include Dean Martin, George Burns, Stan Laurel, and John Cleese, whereas notable Red Noses are W.C. Fields, Robin Williams, Oliver Hardy, and Jerry Lewis.

You’ll probably note that I put Cleese up there. Idle’s big long list also includes him. Seeing as how this book is about comedy and written by a comedian, you’d think it would have the potential for massive self-indulgence, an I’m happy to report that it largely avoids that. There’s a paragraph or so about Monty Python in which Reynolds reports

He thinks he almost finds some evidence [of a comedy gene] with one of the guys on a very weird show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I’ve seen the tapes, and boy, does it suck. It’s strange rather than funny. Five limeys and a Yank.

pg 146

After a lot of references we all know and love, this leads into a paragraph about Idle himself. Carlton is looking for a genetic component to comedy and discovered that Idle had a great-grandfather who was a circus manager. Evidence of a comedy gene? He dismisses it, pointing out that Idle was more likely “screwed up” by losing his father at a young age, in a tragic, pointless way.

Earlier than that, as the H9 asteroid is being evacuated, a random guy says

‘Tis but a flesh wound. Worse things happen at sea. Always look on the bright side, eh?

pg 109

And much later in the book I’m pretty sure a silly walk is mentioned. Maybe a little eye-rolly to cynical old Thomas, but I ate it up when I first read the book, I’m sure. And even now I’m grateful that that was the extent of it.

wink wink nudge nudge know what i mean know what i mean. SAY. NO ...
Nary a mention of this bit, though

I mentioned that a lot of the book’s jokes fell flat for me this time around. One of the best examples of this is the book’s subtitle, “A Post-Modem Novel.” I mean, I get that “modem” and “modern” look a lot alike. It’s basically a joke about kerning. But it doesn’t really mean anything?

But there are still some lines that gave me a chuckle:

When he entered, Brenda had recovered her composure. The room was rococo. He felt a strong sense of gilt.

pg. 48

I like puns. Sue me. But my favorite joke is just a page later.

“What’s that useless piece of skin at the end of a penis called?”

“A man!” they shrieked in chorus.

pg. 49

Anyway, I reckon I’ve prattled on long enough today. In the end, I hate to say that this book didn’t live up to my memories of it, but I’m still not going to say it was outright bad. Part of it is expectation. I think I came back into it remembering the book as a sort of Douglas Adams-style narrative, and it certainly isn’t that. I remembered it being a bit more practical in its analysis of comedy, and that’s wrong too. Charlton eventually concludes that comedy is a fundamental force of the universe, acting against gravity. He calls it “levity.”

It would be a better book with a lot of trimming and a bit more focus, but there’s some good stuff in it to be sussed out. It’s even surprisingly hard science fiction! But some of the jokes feel like they try too hard, and there’s that damning matter of the tone. That’s the roughest thing. If I have to sum up the books faults in a word, that word is inconsistent.

But reading it again brought back a lot of fond memories, too, so I’m happy about that. And I think I’m going to go watch some Flying Circus once this goes up. I’d like that a lot.

One thought on “The Road to Mars

  1. The white face/red nose (or more prosaically straight man/funny one) dichotomy is an interesting thing.

    George Burns would often note that in the beginning of his career with Gracie Allen, She set up the joke (the straight one/white face) while he provided the punch line (the funny one/red nose). Realising that her setting up of the joke was getting as much, if not more laughter than his punch line he reversed their roles, and well, comedy legend was born.

    Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx also fit wonderfully. Both of them claimed that she played her part so straight because she didn’t understand any of the jokes. I’ve never believed that, to play her role so straight and with such perfect timing, she was being the perfect “anti-Groucho”, and they both knew it, but created the myth because it was funny.

    I also remember Douglas Adams being lauded because his turn of humour allowed the straight man/white face to answer back and trump the funny one/red nose and steal the punch line.

    Liked by 1 person

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