cover image The Road to Mars

The Road to Mars

Eric Idle. Pantheon Books, $24 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40340-8

The latest romp from Monty Python alumnus Idle (Hello Sailor) almost has it all: torrid sex, huge disasters in outer space, outworld rebels plotting to save their people from annihilation, quirkily anthropomorphic robots, impossibly rich space moguls, enough one-liners to choke a brontosaur--and philosophy, too. The absence of an interior to any of the book's characters wouldn't be a fatal flaw if the jokes were funny enough or the plot sufficiently absorbing. However, the narrative meanders for long stretches with scene after scene whose only point is to set up a weak joke--the sort of thing that works so well as TV farce but, when passed off as a novel, is tedious. The book is ostensibly the work of one William J. Reynolds, chronicling the revolutionary theorizing of robot Carlton on the nature of comedy. (Oddly, Idle puts forward as Carlton's main theory a White Face/Red Nose classification that in fact has been a commonplace in clown theater for at least a century.) We follow the misadventures of two interplanetary stand-up comics, Muscroft and Ashby, quipping their way through exploding space colonies and sabotaged ships, looking for work. Churning around amid the levity are lumps of melodrama: narrator Reynold's recurring rage at being jilted; love-interest Katy's agonized childhood; beatings and deaths by the hundreds. There are some good laughs, but too many of the jokes are pointless and cheap--like the book's subtitle, ""A Post-Modem Novel""--and the whole is strung together by oddments of erudition and sci-fi, with an ad hoc feel that begs for a blue pencil. Typically, Carlton's crowning insight--the theory of levity as anti-gravity--is silly enough for a giggle, but insufficient as the high point of a novel. (Sept.)