The Road to Mars – Book Review

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.


17 thoughts on “The Road to Mars – Book Review

  1. I quite enjoyed this book, but I do know what you mean – I wonder if it was much more an analysis of comedy itself for Idle than it was trying to tell the story of all the various characters within. But it was a fairly decent book, enough for me to want more from him. 🙂

  2. interesting comment about SF, I know I picked one up at the library the other day and it was a “regency romance” in space. SF is the perfect foil to view culture, for better and / or worse.

    I will have to give this novel a read. Thanks for reviewing it.

  3. It was no Georgette Heyer, the master of witty dialogue and my wife’s favorite, or even a Catherine Ascero whose Skolian series seems to blend the two genres and work.

    But I grew up on Heinlein and Asimov and Niven with a touch of Burroughs and Robert E Howard and favor the swashbuckler. Maybe that is romance for men.


    • Having heard some of Heinleins ideas – I’m not sure they are very romantic! Or even vaguely realistic from the point of view of human nature.
      But swashbucklers are lovely. 🙂

      • Agreed, as he aged, his works became fairly eccentric. My favorites from the middle years were “Glory Road” and “Time Enough for Love”. Of course it was the 1960s.

  4. I loved this book when it first came out, and quickly lent it to my cousin who lent it to somebody else, and so on, and so forth, so I haven’t actually read it myself since 1999 or 2000, but I still vividly remember being utterly shocked and surprised at how strong the story was. I was expecting a flat-out ridiculous comedy, a la Monthy Python, but instead I was treated to a an overly entertaining treatise on the philosophy of comedy. I am making it sound way too serious here… It’s very dark, very funny, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Where did you find it? I thought it went out of print years ago… I haven’t been able to replace my copy in over a decade and I’d really like to read it again.

    • Hi,
      I found it at The Book Depository, no problems. And they have free postage!
      The story is pretty strong, and well plotted, and I’d happily read it again one day. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Pingback: Is sci-fi a downer? « Writer's Block

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