Eric Idle is one of the most recognizable members of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python. He began as both an actor and a writer for their monumental comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which led to three films and eventually inspired the Tony Award-winning musical Spamalot, which Idle also wrote. His songs in particular are the stuff of legend, from his underrated mockumentary sendup of the Beatles The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (which inspired This Is Spinal Tap) to the well-known “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. So obviously, Idle knows how to bring the comedy.
But can he do sci-fi? The answer to that is… kinda?The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel, first released fifteen years ago next month, has been largely forgotten, but the inventive world within is worth a peek. Ostensibly the thesis of a 25th-century “micropaloentology,” the story revolves around a robotic secretary named Carlton, a “Bowie” model (so named for looking like the singer), who services two sub par comedians, Alex and Lewis. Carlton himself is working on a comedy thesis, his about comedic duos like his masters.
That’s the setup for The Road to Mars, and it opens up a world that seems destined to be a lazy, if funny, knock-off of Douglas Adams. Yet, that’s not really what Idle has in mind. It becomes apparent by the halfway mark that this isn’t meant to be a comedy novel disguised as a sci-fi epic. Rather, it’s a very real exploration of the history of comedy that doubles as a surprisingly serious attempt to write science fiction. If it occasionally stumbles onto actual comedy (which, this being Eric Idle, it certainly does), that almost seems incidental to what Idle tries to accomplish.
And that’s probably the biggest problem with The Road to Mars. When discussing the history and theory of humor from the very down-to-earth and often side-splitting perspective of Carlton, Idle succeeds wildly. And when he allows the dialogue between the characters to breathe, he comes up with some fantastic quips (mainly between Alex and Katy, his love interest).
But when he focuses on the actual meat and potatoes of the story, the science fiction elements, it seems kind of forced. The characters are likable enough, and their quest (which involves betrayal, a murder mystery, and a random love story) is engaging, but it never rises quite to the level of the novel’s other, more entertaining aspects.
The book is certainly a fun read, though, and for fans of Idle’s other work, it’s a nice genre exercise that doesn’t go horribly awry. But it never quite rises to the level it needs to work as a science fiction story, and Idle never seems fully comfortable in the genre. Ultimately, it’s largely forgotten for a reason: it’s neither the genius work audiences might hope for nor the complete train wreck it could have been.