The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel

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Overview

With Monty Python's Flying Circus, Eric Idle proved he was one of the funniest people in the world. And with The Road to Mars he reaffirms this with a raucously sidesplitting vengence.

Muscroft and Ashby are a comedy team on "The Road to Mars," an interplanetary vaudeville circuit of the future. Accompanied by Carlton, a robot incapable of understanding irony but driven to learn the essence of humor, Alex and Lewis bumble their way into an intergalactic terrorist plot. Supported...

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Overview

With Monty Python's Flying Circus, Eric Idle proved he was one of the funniest people in the world. And with The Road to Mars he reaffirms this with a raucously sidesplitting vengence.

Muscroft and Ashby are a comedy team on "The Road to Mars," an interplanetary vaudeville circuit of the future. Accompanied by Carlton, a robot incapable of understanding irony but driven to learn the essence of humor, Alex and Lewis bumble their way into an intergalactic terrorist plot. Supported by a delicious cast, including a micropaleontologist narrator (he studies the evolutionary impact of the last ten minutes) and the ultra-diva Brenda Woolley, The Road to Mars is a fabulous trip through Eric Idle's inimitable world, a "universe expanding at the speed of laughter."

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Space Is a Riot

Brought to us by Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, The Road to Mars is a sardonic and often hilarious exposé of the entertainment field that comes in the form of a science fiction novel. Filled with sharp-witted parody and an abundance of laughs, The Road to Mars follows the unlikely travails of a comedy duo romping across the galaxy as all manner of absurdity takes place, from bombing at the solar system's biggest party to hightailing it from imploding planets. In his own peculiar fashion, Idle turns his mighty talents to satirizing the entertainment industry at large, showing us how ephemeral, variable, and incomprehensible humor really can be. Idle clearly enjoys the work he's doing, and the author's own merriment underscores the novel throughout, adding to the reader's amusement.

Our narrator is William Reynolds, a professor of micropaleontology — which is the study of "the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes" — who now researches the dynamics of humor even while mooning for his younger lover, Molly. Reynolds has found himself a new subject to write about: Carlton the android. Carlton, who looks like a "young rock god," is traveling with the comedians Alex Muscroft and Lewis Ashby in an effort to understand the nature of comedy. After flopping on Saturn on New Year's Eve (an event that comes around only once every 50 years on Saturn), Alex and Lewis hit the "road to Mars," the solar circuit of space platforms and planetary coloniesleadingback to Mars, the height of show business.

Soon though, the duo manages to bounce back and land the job of a lifetime aboard the luxury space cruiser the Princess Di, owned by wealthy Emil Keppler. The star of the trip, though, is the talentless diva Brenda Woolley, who promenades on board, acting by turns snobbish and insincere. Unknown to them, Keppler is married to Brenda, and after Alex makes several jokes about Brenda to Keppler, the comedians find themselves fired from the cruise. Immediately, all their other gigs are canceled as well, but not before Carlton is able to download some secret files from the onboard computer. After Alex discovers that a gift given to him by the beautiful Katy Wallace is actually a transmitter sending info to a distant planet, a conspiracy seems to be in the works.

Reynolds and Carlton's observations on humor are deliciously intelligent, honest, and sharp. The author begins each chapter with a blurb from a famous comedian, and the commentary ranges from the sublime to the riotous and wicked. Because Idle's own sense of humor is so skewed and wide ranging, the jokes in the book are equally varied. Idle brings a clever and intriguing blend of humor, farce, and often genuinely rollicking SF elements to the rapidly paced story line. A reader can accept Idle's work as science-fantasy satire with a message or as a madcap romp full of some of the most diverting characters, circumstances, and imaginative one-liners you're likely to stumble upon this side of Douglas Adams. Either way, the reader is in for an engaging indulgence of the imagination and a hard knock to the funny bone.

—Tom Piccirilli

Tom Piccirilli is the author of the critically acclaimed supernatural novel Pentacle, as well as the dark suspense mysteries Shards and The Dead Past. His short fiction has appeared in many anthologies, including The Conspiracy Files. His two latest, an exciting mystery called Sorrow's Crown and a horror novel called Hexes, have recently been released.

From the Publisher
"I laughed, I cried, and then I read the book." -Steve Martin

"Filled with intelligent observations about comedy and comedians, and enough one-liners to keep a funnyman in gigs past Pluto." -The New York Times

"[A] thumping good story." The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Dazzling. . . . The language, the jokes, the problems and foibles of his characters are purely of our time." -Los Angeles Times

Emily Gordon
Consider the question: What makes Monty Python so funny? Before you run for cover, fearing bands of TV-mad academics and 12-year-olds with the complete script of ''Dead Parrot'' at the ready, ponder this analysis: ''Five limeys and a Yank. No girls; they did drag. Typical Brits. They're never happier than when dressing up as women. ... It's all very silly nonsense. They seem dangerously cuckoo to me.''

This dismissal - written by the fictional professor William Reynolds at the tail end of the 25th century - is the work of Python veteran Eric Idle himself. His new novel, ''The Road to Mars,'' brings the philosophy of humor into the future - which, in Idle's vision, is populated by almost-human robots, divas with an intergalactic audience that puts Murdoch and Turner to shame, cruiserlike spaceships with enough live entertainment to last a light-year, the requisite fancy computer gizmos, multiple identities, and your garden-variety stand-up-comic guys.

The philosophy part of it all is the preoccupation of professor Reynolds, who's actually narrating a story that takes place 80 years earlier, in the late 2300s. Way back then, a robot named Carlton - ''a 4.5 Bowie ... a handsome, good-looking thing, built on the image of a young rock god from the 1980s'' - puts a lot of work into a dissertation on what makes humans laugh. He calls it ''De Rerum Comoedia: A Discourse on Humor,'' and by the time he's done, he feels (or thinks, anyway) that he's hit upon the Unified Theory of Everything.

This fascinates Carlton because of whose droid he is: two comedians', Alex Muscroft (the short manic one) and Lewis Ashby (the tall laconic one). In fact, Carlton concludes excitedly, if his calculations and deductions about comedy are right, ''now they might not even have to do it anymore.'' But Reynolds, having discovered this treatise in some abandoned university files, has a nefarious plan to use Carlton's conclusions for his own fame (and to win back his fickle girlfriend).

The bulk of the novel, though, concerns the adventures of Muscroft and Ashby, as they're known on the circuit, and their run-ins with a host of sci-fi personalities: the villainous ship's captain, the beautiful woman with a habit of flirting with men and then planting explosive cybermines on the premises, the mysterious old man from a renegade planet, and, of course, the ubiquitous diva whose ego and sense of hubris could easily eclipse the sun.

Stuff blows up; people pop into History Bars, where the 20th century is undergoing a kitschy revival; wisecracks abound; and all the while Carlton, ''tintellectual'' extraordinaire, is trying to make sense of it even though, as his Oz counterpart lacked a heart, he's minus a funny bone.

All of this is, as the hapless professor Reynolds would say, very silly nonsense. But like everyone with a shipshape sense of humor, Idle knows not to take himself too seriously. ''The Road to Mars'' has the quality of the gently nutty Python sketches - the proper newscaster oblivious to the tide coming in, the broad satire of the courtroom scenes, the surreal animation - rather than the pure brilliant rage of a John Cleese explosion.

But if there were only one way to make humans laugh, the world would be a very dismal place indeed. Eric Idle continues to make sure it isn't.
Boston Globe

Trudi Miller Rosenblum
Former Monty Python trouper Eric Idle gives a lively performance of this amusing, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi parody. Idle's many years in comedy have served him well, and his deft timing and comic delivery add greatly to the humor here.
Billboard
Library Journal
Idle, a founding member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, reads this audio version of his much-anticipated sf novel. The narrator, professor Bill Reynolds, is a micropaleontologist who studies the impact of the last ten minutes on human evolution. Reynolds's first-person introduction quickly becomes a third-person tale of two 24th-century comics, Muscroft and Ashby, and their android, Carlton. The latter is traveling with the two comics as they perform in the backwater mining stations that litter the road to Mars, the entertainment center of the galaxy. Carlton is studying the history of comedy, which allows Idle to mention Monty Python, in an attempt to understand the role humor plays in defining what it is to be human. Along the way, the android and his companions are embroiled in a rather wacky, irrelevant terrorist plot, and it is left to Carlton to save the day while still finding the time to complete his doctoral dissertation. Idle does a fine job overall with the narration but has a tendency to the occasional slightly manic breathlessness that is a throwback to his Python days and lacks the careful enunciation employed as a matter of course by experienced audio readers. The droll, ironic Pythonesque humor that pervades the recording will be appreciated by Python fans but would play better in a visual format. Many of Idle's jokes fall flat when read by a single narrator, particularly one who does not provide distinct enough voices for the central characters. Recommended only where demand dictates.--Leah Sparks, Bowie P.L., MD Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
San
Eric Idle has been recruited by NBC to pump some humor into its laugh-challenged sitcom "Suddenly Susan" this fall. On the basis of the one-liners that overflow in his new novel, the network might want to let the former Monty Python member write the show as well. ...Given how successful Idle is at making an android funny in The Road to Mars, Brooke Shields should be a piece of cake.
Kirkus Reviews
Science-fiction comedy-thriller from the ex-Monty Python star and children's writer. Narrator Bill Reynolds, a professor of evolutionary theory, unearths an old Ph.D dissertation that perceptively examines the wellsprings of comedy—and that was summarily rejected because its author, Carlton, was a robot. Carlton's ideas are too good to waste, thinks Reynolds, who investigates with larcenous intent. Carlton was the property of a bush-league comic duo, Lewis Ashby and Alex Muscroft, who worked the circuit between Saturn and Mars. Their adventures begin when Lewis and Alex audition for a gig aboard the huge luxury interplanetary liner Princess Diana but, fatally, insult the unspeakably dreadful celebrity Brenda Woolley. With their other gigs suddenly and inexplicably canceled, they decide to head for Mars. At the colony world H9, Alex falls headlong for gorgeous Katy Wallace—but her terrorist associates promptly sabotage H9. While mentally constructing his comedy thesis, Carlton rescues Katy from the imploding planetoid, then saves everyone from a reproducing bomb aboard their own ship. Afterward, stranded and slowly freezing in the cold of space, Carlton experiences a revelation: levity, the opposite of gravity, is the fundamental force that causes the universe to expand—at the speed of laughter! Now he even understands irony. Once thawed out, Carlton must protect his humans from the terrorists who wish their silence. Often delightful, with fair-to-middling thriller elements and a merry yet thoughtful analysis of comedy: should entertain everybody bar the terminally unamused.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375703126
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 803,697
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Fame is a terminal disease. It screws you up worse than your mom and dad. Somewhere in the late twentieth century the pursuit of fame became a way of life. Suddenly everyone wanted to be famous. Newscasters, journalists, weather men, astrologers, cooks, interns, even lawyers for God's sake, everyone went nuts trying to grab their fifteen minutes of fame promised by the pop philosophy of Andy Warhol. It replaced life after death as mankind's greatest illusion. Fame! You'll live forever. Fame! Your chance to revenge your parents. Fame! Take that, you nasty kids who were so cruel to me at school. Fame! A chance to screw yourself across the flickering face of history.

Fame, fame, fame, fame, fame.

This syphilis of the soul was caused of course by the arrival of television and the instant attention of the new mass media. If the medium was the message, then the message was crap, for the TV screens were filled from morning to night with a constant twenty-four-hour shit storm. No one was spared. Not presidents, not princes, not popes, not people's representatives. Knickers off, panties down, coming live at you in ten, nine, eight . . . Kiss and tell, kiss and sell, bug your neighbors, tape your friends, grab an agent and sell, sell, sell. Intimacy? Privacy? Forget it. Notoriety? Shame? No such thing. Fame. That's the name of the game. Private life was washed away under the tidal wave of freedom of speech. It didn't matter whether you were famous for murdering a president or inventing a pudding, now fame could travel at the speed of light, everyone was just a sound bite from stardom.

No one remembers the name of the anarchist who started World War One by murdering the archduke in Sarajevo in 1914. Everyone remembers Lee Harvey Oswald. Fame! A rifle shot away. Providing you have television. Fame, the intellectual equivalent of waving at the camera. "Look at me, Ma! I'm here. I'm real. I'm on TV." Sad, sick, and deplorable, isn't it? I mean in the 1990s even agents became famous, for Christ's sake. And what do we call the famous? Stars! I mean hello. Have we no sense of irony? Look up—look up at the real stars. Billions of them? Billions and billions of the buggers. Don't we get it? There is no fame. There is no immortality. There is no life after death. There are just millions of tiny grains of sand scraping away at each other. We're on the planet Ozymandias, people! Look on my works ye mighty and despair! The grains of time, grinding away at our insignificance . . . well you get the picture. You're intelligent. You've read this far at least.

But who the fuck are you to lecture us on our insignificance? I hear you ask. Not unreasonably. OK, my name is Reynolds. Given name William. Better known as Bill. Actually, Professor Bill, which is better than William, and much better than the quite awful Billy. And that's what I do: I lecture on insignificance. I'm a micropaleontologist. You may be unaware of the study labeled micropaleontology (occasionally microanthropology), which was the first really brand-new science of the Double Ages (the second millennium). It is my job to study the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes. Originally that phrase was a cheap gag intended to belittle this brave new science, this paradoxically titled branch of anthropology—for how can there be a micropaleontology? What are we talking ontologically here? Dust mites? Bakelite radio sets? Dung heaps of old newspapers which will over time become rock? Well actually, yes. If you can measure time in parsecs and millisecs, and matter down to the tiniest gluon, then the evolutionary aspects of the last ten minutes is a perfectly acceptable concept. So argued Edwin Crawford at Cambridge University shortly after the close of the twentieth century. He was pondering the enormous changes that had taken place during that violent era and he asked himself, What are the evolutionary implications of television? He found that similar questions could be asked of the automobile, birth control, the computer, air travel, even rock and roll. It seemed to Crawford that the process of evolution was demonstrably speeding up, that we had no time to wait for anthropologists and paleontologists to sift through the fossil record and explain what was happening to us in our time. It would be far too late to be useful. (His italics.) So, a new science was born.

My particular subject has been comedy in the late twentieth century, and I have spent the last fifteen years researching it. My doctoral thesis was called "The Passive Bark: Aspects of Laughter." Yes, 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, but that indeed was exactly what I was studying when I was fortunate enough to stumble across the work of Carlton. You won't have heard of him, but he was the first to postulate a comedy gene, in a remarkable work titled De Rerum Comoedia (Concerning Comedy), a doctoral dissertation for USSAT (the University of Southern Saturn) submitted in the late 2300s. The most interesting thing about Carlton was not that he was an android, an artificial intelligence, but that he worked for two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby. You won't have heard of them either; they were just two minor comics on the Road to Mars, an ironical term used to describe the great wastes between the outer planets and mining stations where the early entertainers pursued their weary trade; a vaudeville circuit which exploited mankind's desperate need for live entertainment. They were hardly worth a footnote in the halls of humor but for the work of this quite brilliant humanoid who spent years observing them in action and asked himself two key questions: (1) What are the evolutionary uses of humor? And (2) Can it be learned by artificial intelligence?

The chess machines had long since demolished mankind's supposed superiority in chess. Could a machine now be programmed to be funny? I don't mean could it be force-fed gags to spout on verbal cues—that's easy enough—but could it actually be programmed to understand what it was doing, to think funny, to create fresh comedy? In other words, is it possible for an artificial intelligence to learn humor, or is comedy something endemic in the species Homo sapiens? Is it unique to mankind or would you expect to find humor among any other advanced civilizations, supposing such things exist?

Carlton attacked these questions with all the vigor and freshness of a computer. This extraordinary humanoid looked at humor and came up with several interesting observations. I think you'll be surprised. To put his research in perspective I need to take you back about eighty years.

THE WHITE FACE AND THE RED NOSE

Of the future only one thing is certain. There will be comedy.
—Carlton, De Rerum Comoedia

Consider the following. Two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby, and a robot, a droid called Carlton. A 4.5 Bowie. A handsome, good-looking thing, built on the image of a young rock god from the 1980s. Not the androgynous early Ziggie Stardust machine (the 3.2s with which they had such trouble), but the full-blown golden-haired young white god look. "Like a butch Rupert Brooke; a tragic dandy, a cross between a wank and a wet dream," as the brochure described it.

Two comedians, one a depressive who was occasionally manic, the other a maniac who was occasionally depressed. Lewis Ashby, tall, dark, and saturnine; Alex Muscroft, short, wide, and cheerful. Lewis, the ectomorph; Alex, the endomorph. The classic comedy profile, the tall thin one and the short fat one.

"There are two types of comedian," states Carlton in the preface to his dissertation, "both deriving from the circus, which I shall call the White Face and the Red Nose. Almost all comedians fall into one or the other of these two simple archetypes. In the circus, the White Face is the controlling clown with the deathly pale masklike face who never takes a pie; the Red Nose is the subversive clown with the yellow and red makeup who takes all the pies and the pratfalls and the buckets of water and the banana skins. The White Face represents the mind, reminding humanity of the constant mocking presence of death; the Red Nose represents the body, reminding mankind of its constant embarrassing vulgarities. (See Chapter XX of De Rerum Comoedia, "Pooh-Pooh: Pooping, Farts, and Sex.") The emblem of the White Face is the skull, that of the Red Nose is the phallus. One stems from the plague, the other from the carnival. The bleakness of the funeral, the wildness of the orgy. The graveyard and the fiesta. The brain and the penis. Hamlet and Falstaff. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Laurel and Hardy. Muscroft and Ashby."

You try it with any comedians you can think of, and I tell you it works. Carlton, this smart little tintellectual, is on to something real here. Just look for the distinguishing characteristics: the White Face is the controlling neurotic and the Red Nose is the rude, rough Pan. The White Face compels your respect; the Red Nose begs for it. The Red Nose smiles and nods and winks, and wants your love; the White Face rejects it. He never smiles; he is always deadly serious. Never more so than when doing comedy.

"Men," says Carlton, "have two major organs, the brain and the penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time."

He nicked that line from Alex, but it's clever stuff, eh? And he pretty much nailed Alex, the Red Nose maniac, and Lewis, the bright-eyed White Face neurotic. Physically they were that clearly defined, the classic prototypes that Carlton was delineating. Lewis was "the tall thin one" and Alex "the short fat one." People often said Alex was the funny one, but Lewis was equally funny, if more cutting. He didn't take any prisoners. Lewis was older than his partner by almost three years and slightly round-shouldered and stooped, as if embarrassed to find himself so tall. He had a long face with dark eyes that stared at you, separated by a thin nose. His laugh when it came was unforced and hilarious, exploding uncontrollably out of his chest, a great shriek of a laugh which shook his whole body and left him completely paralyzed for minutes at a time, after which he would have to stretch out and lie on the floor, his shoulders occasionally heaving, until he gained control of himself again. A tall man, well over six feet, his thinning black hair struggling with a parting. Alex said it wasn't a parting it was a departing, a cruel jibe, since even in his twenties his falling hair was beginning to worry him more than he cared to admit. He didn't like things out of control, witness his tiny handwriting ("Ooh look, a mouse left me a note," Alex would scream), but he could control neither his hair nor his partner. Brooding, obsessing, cynical, slightly menacing, he loomed over Alex like a headmaster.

Not that he dominated Alex. The Red Nose knows a thing or two when it comes to survival. He is by nature a bad boy, a consumer of things, a wolfer of experience, an enjoyer of the sensual. "He's like a timorous gourmet," Lewis said in an interview, for Alex was a consumer of women when he could, of drugs and alcohol, before they nearly killed him, and above all of food. He loved to eat. He fought a constant battle with his weight. He was by nature a wide boy, with the classic endomorphic profile. He would be much wider if his strong will to succeed didn't force him to punish himself by running on the machine all day, beads of sweat rolling down his short sharp nose. Lewis said he was a liposuction waiting to happen. Blue eyes, wide cheekbones, with a hint of protruding chin, his hair was rusty and sprouted everywhere, on surfaces where it wasn't strictly necessary. Lewis called him the human fur ball.

"Do you shave your shoulders?" he would ask.

"Every day," said Alex. "Want me to save a little for your head so we can knit a nice rug for it?"

Never short of a riposte, Alex. Fast as lightning. There was something in this banter that was a little uncomfortable, so on the whole, by unspoken mutual agreement, they laid off each other offstage.

At least according to Carlton, upon whose extraordinarily detailed notes I rely.

Red Nose, White Face, then, the classic struggle. Not quite a friendship, not exactly a marriage, not even a brotherhood, let's call it a polarity, a tension of opposites. Like positive and negative. Providing they kept their distance, they held a comfortable balance. On stage together they were dynamite.

The Circuit. Endless mining stations, space platforms, the satellites of Saturn and of Jupiter. Nothing exciting. Somewhere a million miles away, the Planet Disney. Way beyond that, Mars: the home of showbiz, with its endless eager audiences. Something to aspire to. Make it there, you hit the jackpot.

A ship, the Johnnie Ray, named after an obscure twentieth-century torch singer, built inside like a British movie set (early Merchant Ivory) in fashionable good taste, with fires and wood and leather and deep comfy sofas in William Morris fabrics (the Pre-Raphaelite designer, not the Hollywood agency). None of your Star Wars High Aztec bleakness here, this was a ship built for comfort. There's a lot of space out there, and a hell of a lot of time.

And then there's Carlton. The extraordinary. A humanoid with no sense of humor writing a study of comedy. I knew there was a book in it the minute I came across him. But I haven't told anyone about him. Not even Molly. Molly's my girlfriend at the moment, live-in, significant other, partner, mistress, whatever. She's a researcher, doing life science, DNA and behavior, that sort of thing. She'd eat Carlton up. So I haven't shared him with her yet. He's my secret. You have no idea how much theft goes on in pure research.

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