Eric Idle,
The Road to Mars:
A Post-Modem Novel

(Pantheon, 1999)

If, because of the author's name, you're expecting broad and bizarre humor a la Douglas Adams or, for that matter, Monty Python, do yourself a favor. Take a shift in your expectations or else you're never going to appreciate the wry, humorous subtleties which lace their way through the neatly constructed and suspenseful plot of Eric Idle's The Road to Mars.

Idle's novel is a story wrapped around a story. A scholar discovers a thesis on the origins of comedy by one Carlton, an android (Bowie 4.5 model) which was rejected three-quarters of a century earlier due to Carlton's failure to be human. The scholar, Dr. William Reynolds, an expert on late twentieth-century comedy, presents the thesis and Carlton's history while, bit by bit, revealing his intention to appropriate the manuscript and submit it as his own.

The main story is about Carlton, his employers Lewis Ashby and Alex Muscroft (a comedy team traveling the vaudeville circuit of the solar system), and Carlton's search for the meaning of irony and the origins of comedy. Carlton's pondering on his questions and his research to date weaves into the plot as he examines twentieth-century comedians including Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Ashby and Muscroft audition for a job on the Princess Di, a huge cruise ship that travels around the solar system. It goes well and they seem to have the gig locked up until Alex offends the Emil Keppler, husband to Brenda Woolley, the domineering, self-centered diva around whom everything on the cruise ship revolves. Needless to say, they lose the gig, but then find that every single one of their engagements has been canceled. What they don't realize is that they're about to be drawn into a complicated plot involving terrorists, rebels, secret agents and weapons smugglers, not to mention missing persons, secret identities and androids in drag.

Idle keeps tight control of the various threads as the plot careens toward the climax, managing to throw in a few surprises at the end as well. While the novel is strongly plot-driven, the characterization is well done as well, particularly with the three "clowns" -- Ashby, the tall, slender straight man; Muscroft, the short, manic comic; and Carlton, the clown wannabe. (His character might have been just a bit better realized had he not been so reminiscent of Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation.) The humor is deliciously sly, meant for ongoing chuckling rather than guffaws. It isn't always present, either -- at times, the story becomes deadly serious, but it remains compelling and exciting.

The Road to Mars is a good pick if you like science fiction thrillers which don't take themselves entirely seriously.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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