The Road to Mars

NB. Update 24 Sept 2014 – I just re-read The Road To Mars and there’s some lurid sexism and infantile sex scenes toward the end that are cringe-worthy. As much as I enjoyed this story, those scenes soured the book for me. That I’m only seeing this now goes to show how I’ve had to mature too, I guess. 

With NASA’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars, there’s been a lot of science on this blog, but not much fiction over the past month, and all this talk of Mars has had me thinking about some of the great novels that have been written about the angry red planet, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars, etc.

My all-time favourite book about the god of war’s humble abode is Eric Idle’s The Road to Mars, although this book is more about the journey than the destination.

Eric Idle is a surreal comedian, one of the founders of Monty Python, and The Road to Mars reads like a script from Red Dwarf. If you’re a Red Dwarf fan and you haven’t read The Road, you are in for a treat. I’d go so far as to say you should keep the following character comparisons in mind.

Road to Mars Red Dwarf
Android Carlton Android Kryton
Alex Muscroft Dave Lister
Lewis Ashby Arnold Judas Rimmer
Boo The Cat
Katy Wallace Kristine Kochanski

I don’t know if this was a conscious decision on Idle’s part, and I’m not the only one to draw these comparisons, but it in no way detracts from the comedy. If anything, it enhances it as you follow already well-established caricature characters through the story.

The Road to Mars gets savaged in the Amazon reviews, and I’ve passed this book around to friends who have given it a rating of “Meh!” But I love it. I’ve read this book twice and am taking it with me to Melbourne this weekend to read on the plane.

Robin Williams noted The Road was “part biting satire, part loony vaudeville, part comic dissertation, The Road to Mars will make you bark.” Barking, as you learn on the road to Mars, is the evolutionary origin of laughter.

Although it should be noted, The Road doesn’t contain side-splitting humour. The laughs come from insightful British wit. Consider this example from the opening of the book:

Fame… syphilis of the soul… Kiss and tell, kiss and sell… 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… Everyone remembers Lee Harvey Oswald…

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. [There’s] billions and billions of the buggers…

I’m a micropalaeontologist… it is my job to study the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes… what are the evolutionary implications of the television… the automobile, birth control, the computer, air travel, even rock and roll? It seemed… the process of evolution was demonstrably speeding up, that we had no time to wait for anthropologists and palaeontologists to sift through the fossil record and explain what was happening to us in our time. It would be fare too late to be useful. So, a new science was born.

As relevant and irreverent as that section is, remember it was written in 1999, years before the emergence of social media and the rise of Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, where anyone and everyone (including me) can have their 15GB of fame.

The Road to Mars follows the emergence of comedic intelligence within the robot Carlton as he travels with two human comedians, Alex and Lewis. Carlton is studying comedy, trying to understand humour from a logical perspective, and raises the notion of comedy being based around the dichotomies of character found within man, as personified by the red nose clown and the white-faced clown.

The red nose clown is our fun-loving, carefree nature, while the white-faced clown is grim and serious, he’s our tendency toward authoritarian rule. The red nose and the white face are two sides to nature, the contrast between life and death.

And in this manner, Eric Idle provides a running commentary into the nature of comedy while dishing up hilarious examples along the way. Once you realize the red nose/white face nature of comedy you start to see it everywhere in the classic comedy pairings. It’s not the only formula for comedy, but it tends to be the most dominant, and repeats in various forms wherever a hearty laugh is found.

Consider these comedy duos, in no particular order…

White Face (serious) Red Nose (silly)
John Cleese/Graham Chapman Eric Idle/Michael Palin
Rimmer Lister
Bert Ernie
Ben Stiller Owen Wilson
Will Ferrell John C. Reilly, Steve Carell, Zack Galifianakis
Abbott Costello
Dean Martin Jerry Lewis
Cheech Chong
David Spade Chris Farley
Hardy Laurel
Simon Pegg NIck Frost
Richard Pryor Gene Wilder

Comedy within Science Fiction is a rarity, but when it is pulled off well, the results are out of this world. Think about The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, Back to the Future, Spaceballs, Bill & Teds, EvolutionJust the mention of those titles brings a smile to my face.

If Hollywood ever makes The Road to Mars into a movie, I’ll line up to see it.

7 thoughts on “The Road to Mars

  1. I have never read the book so I can’t comment on that, but I did find the Amazon ratings interesting. Just as many people who gave the book a 1 star rating gave it a 5 star rating and pretty consistant in between. Odd that a title is so liked and disliked at the same time.

    You forgot one of the all time great sci fi comedy movies: Weird Science.

    • You know, I never saw Weird Science… How weird is that? I’ll have to grab a copy from the video store. As for the book ratings, yep, it’s love it or hate it. Interesting, though, I checked out some of the Red Dwarf books on Amazon to see if there was a similar pattern, and there’s several books in the series that have only five or six ratings. WTF?

  2. OMG, you’re a fan of Red Dwarf?! #highfive

    I’m a huge fan of Lister & Holly—both Hollys! 😀 British humor is a particularly tasty flavor of sarcasm, and in combination with science-fiction it makes for absolutely exquisite entertainment. I’ve never heard of Idle’s Road to Mars, but it’s on my wishlist now. Thanks for the recommendation, Peter. 🙂

    • It’s not a laugh-a-minute, but it is insightful and enjoyable. Like Red Dwarf, at first glance it may seem a bit lame until you get into the personas and appreciate the subtitles, but I think it’s a classic.

      • I’m not a fan of easy, pre-chewed humor anyway. I’m more likely to “bark” at Blackadder than Married with Children. 😉

      • Hmmm… just got to the end of The Road. I’d forgotten about the crass sex scene, which lets the book down as it doesn’t contribute to either the story or the comedy. Ah, it’s still a good book, but a little less so…

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