It’s Science Fiction, Jim, but not as we know it…
‘The Road to Mars’ by Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame, is quite unlike any science fiction novel I’ve ever read. The story concerns two comedians, Alex Muscroft and Lewis Ashby, and their robot Carlton. Carlton is a Bowie 4.5 – a somewhat eccentric model, designed to look exactly like a young version of glam-rock god David Bowie. Unbeknownst to Alex and Lewis, Carlton is working on his masters thesis, which analyses the essence of comedy.
The discovery of Carlton’s thesis brings in our third main character, who narrates part of the story, divorced from the action by about 80 years. Professor Bill Reynolds, lecturer in micropaleontology (the study of the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes), realising the brilliance of Carlton’s theories, plans to release them as a bestseller.
Carlton’s theories include the ‘Red Nose, White face’ situation, which develops the idea that for comedy duos to work, there must be both a Red nose (earthy, vulgar, subversive, ready to please), and a White face (serious, self-involved, controlling) to bring things into relief. Coming from someone like Eric Idle, who has spent his life involved in comedy, this seems like a genuine insight into what makes us laugh, even though, as he says:
“I know, I know, it is the hallmark of the desperately unfunny to study comedy, as if somehow it could be learned, as if it might be contagious like a virus picked up and passed on…”
Although I understand the need for Bill Reynolds, as it would have been difficult to delve into Carlton’s theories of comedy without him, as a character I felt he was a bit extraneous. We don’t really get to know or love him, and I wonder of an impersonal narrator would have done just as well.
While ‘The Road to Mars’ certainly is Science Fiction, in that it involves the future of mankind, scattered throughout the solar system, spaceships, robots, exploding space-stations, and terrorists against terraforming, for some reason it doesn’t really feel like science fiction. It’s a difficult feeling to explain, but perhaps it comes down to the science fiction being just a convenient vehicle for telling a fairly involved soap-opera of a story.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a really fun read. The action skips along nicely, and the characters are engaging on the whole. I’m not one to think that all sci-fi must be deadly serious, fully scientifically accurate, and always stretching the boundaries of human understanding, although of course it can do all those things. More that where characters of, say ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ are fully immersed in their world, no matter how absurd, the characters of ‘The Road to Mars’ felt more to me like puppets in a set, or actors on stage.
It is hard not to make some comparisons with ‘Hitch-hiker’s’. But where ‘Hitchhiker’s’ is absurd, rambling, light and at heart quite philosophical, ‘The Road to Mars’ is more closely plotted, darker, more satirical (especially on the subject of fame), it is without the sweet craziness of Adams’ imagination.
However, it is highly entertaining. I confess it didn’t make me laugh out loud, but perhaps that’s more a reflection on me!
My rating: Three and a half stars.