Eric Idles 1999 sci-fi comedy novel is an odd assortment of psychoanalysis, cyberpunk spy thriller, social satire and clinical essay on the nature of comedy, in which the respected Python gets some things off his chest and postulates the end of the road for his profession: what if a computer could tell a joke as well as a human?
In truth, theres a little too much going on in The Road to Mars in terms of its shifting style and focus, the most interesting aspect being the background plot of the service android Carltons determined attempts to understand the profession of his owners, a comedy double-act touring the run-down establishments of the outer solar system in the twenty-fourth century. Carlton secretly observes Alex and Lewis (also known as Muscroft & Ashby) as they behave in a generally childish manner both on- and off-stage, and Idle builds a very interesting, if a little clinical analysis over the course of the novel, as Carlton comes ever closer to understanding the shocking truth that comedy is the fundamental force of the universe, though never quite grasping irony.
Carltons research primarily focuses, quite conveniently, on comics of the late twentieth century, which allows Idle to pay respect and criticism to his peers as well as slag himself off specifically by analysing an obscure television programme named Monty Pythons Flying Circus, which, as Carlton observes, the studio audience seems to enjoy for reasons he is unable to grasp: surely its just silly walks, daft cartoons and men in drag? Many of Idles (or rather, Carltons) findings are fairly obvious and well-known, such as the age-old dichotomy between the straight man and funny man, here categorised as White Face and Red Nose archetypes, but his extensive findings on apparently universal psychological truths that comedians felt abandoned as children and now seek attention through their profession are really quite interesting, and of course Idle isnt above viciously criticising himself as a historical figure.
The novel is narrated by a twenty-fifth century human researcher Bill Reynolds, who presents the majority in a detached, omniscient style before chipping in with intrusive but entertaining chapters detailing his own marital troubles and his descent down the slippery slope of greed and the desire for fame, despite having vehemently criticised this in the opening section. Nevertheless, this does add a jarring layer on top of an otherwise fairly straightforward and linear story, and its difficult to reconcile Reynolds character with the narrator of the larger pieces who seems to know a little too much about the historical specifics, particularly as many characters are completely isolated for substantial chunks.
It really felt like Idle had come up with this funny idea of a robot trying to get its head around humour as a way to explore his own theories of comedy, and planned out a satisfying arc of increasing delirium for the paranoid android, but didnt know quite how to turn it into a novel. Thus, the more primary plot evolves from the very nice, low-key and slightly depressing travels of Alex and Lewis show to a fairly unsatisfying action thriller with huge explosions, catastrophes, bad physics and recycled sci-fi ideas presented as novel. I was enjoying the book greatly as a simple account of a double-acts life on the road and was disappointed when the character essentially became pointless background participants to a larger plot that didnt really hold my interest or have anything to do with the earlier chapters, and trying to ignore the car chases and uncomfortable sex scenes, the only theme I really enjoyed as it plodded towards a predictable conclusion were those featuring the ridiculously showbiz Brenda Woolley, an untouchable cultural icon who the mindless masses seem to love simply because its expected, not really realising how terrible she is until its too late. Sort of like Noels House Party.
As a Monty Python fan I obviously have some respect for Eric Idle, though I think its fair to say that out of that group, despite his determination, pretty much everything he has done since then has been pretty awful (though Ive never seen The Rutles so I cant comment on that, but Im talking about those films he makes based on nothing more than a title or one-line synopsis). The Road to Mars has some nice ideas but is really spoiled by its attempts to become a Hollywood motion picture rather than a more domestic and truthful exploration of the life of a comedian, pointlessly shifted a few centuries into the future I would have enjoyed this far more. The author clearly knows what hes talking about as he dissects comedy beyond breaking point, so it would have been much nicer to have the realism of plot and character, rather than these two protagonists who end up doing very little in the latter two-thirds of the novel, and whose dialogue is always a little too over-the-top to be believable and human. Even Carlton, for all his cute perseverance, never really escapes comparison to Marvin from Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with some dialogue taken straight from Star Treks Data. His intentional resemblance to David Bowie adds some quirkiness that unfortunately doesnt extend to the rest of the plot, and as science fiction aimed at several clashing genres, it falls rather flat.
Those interested in getting Eric Idles breakdown of comedy in far more detail than is strictly necessary would enjoy much of this book, but if youre reading for that purpose, as I suppose I was, the bulk of plot distractions will simply seem like filler. Carltons analyses are really quite brilliant and entertaining, going way too far on occasion as he attempts to find a linguistic reason for comedys metaphors of death (dying on stage, knocking em dead, etc.) but other times coming up with some truly insightful findings. Its pretty clear that Idle intended this to be the main focus of the work but wasnt able to stretch it out to 300 pages without adding all this adventure and terrorism stuff, but on the whole its not a bad read. Just dont expect to be laughing by the end.
Carlton is an android working 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. Being a computer he can't understand irony, but is nevertheless attempting to write a thesis about comedy, its place in evolution, and whether it can ever be cured. He is studying the comedians of the late twentieth century (including obscure and esoteric comedy acts such as Monty Python's Flying Circus) in his search for the comedy gene. Meanwhile, during an audition for a gig on the Princess Di (a solar cruise ship), his two employers inadvertently become involved in a terriorist plot against Mars, the planet of showbiz. Can Carlton prevent Alex and Lewis from losing their gigs, overcome the love thing and finally understand the meaning of comedy in the universe? From one of the original members of Monty Python's Flying Circus.