Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Book Review by Richard R. Horton
Here we have Eric Idle’s second adult novel, The Road to Mars. Idle, of course, is a member of the great British comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and a reasonable successful comedian, actor and author on his own since the Python days.
In this novel Idle seems mainly interested in discussing the nature of comedy. This is a pretty reasonable theme, if perhaps hard to get at. Idle chooses to have his story narrated by a 25th Century academic named Bill Reynolds. Reynolds has found a thesis submitted by a robot, called De Rerum Comoedia, which he apparently finds brilliant. The robot, named Carlton, was working for a two man comedy team, Muscroft and Ashby (very much in the mode of Laurel and Hardy etc.) and trying to understand comedy, something no notoriously literal-minded AI had ever been able to do. This book is Reynolds’ narration of a trip Carlton took with Muscroft and Ashby from Saturn on “the Road to Mars”, a tour through the Asteroid Belt to Mars, interspersed with both Reynolds and Carlton theorizing about comedy and Reynolds trying to publish Carlton’s thesis and worrying about his unfaithful girlfriend. All this is promising material.
However, promising it may be, it doesn’t really work. Idle has committed a number of scientific howlers. None is terribly important, though, so I think they could all have been forgiven. Another forgivable failure is the concentration on 20th Comics (inevitably including Idle himself) in Carlton and Reynolds’ discussions of comedy. More important is the rudimentary and not very involving thriller plot. None of it really makes sense, it’s never very exciting, and the resolution is flat. (The main characters, Muscroft and Ashby and Carlton, are a bit better: we do care about them.) The most important failures are these: 1) the book tries, but it really isn’t very funny. There are bits and pieces that made me laugh, but there’s a whole lot of boring schtick. And 2), the attempts at explaining comedy, or making us believe that Carlton understands it (and could get a Nobel Prize for his thesis!) are unconvincing.
In sum, I found The Road to Mars tired and flat, not successful either as SF, as comedy, or simply as a novel.