“I laughed, I cried, and then I read the book.” – Steve Martin
In some ways it’s hard to picture a member of Monty Python as an entity separate of Monty Python. Whenever we see John Cleese, no matter who he is playing, he somehow carries a bit of his Python-ness around with him. Same can be said of Terry Gilliam, even though he’s long gone his own way as a director, or Michael Palin as a travel writer.
Of them all, however, I think Eric Idle is the one that seems to be the most inseparable from his Python identity, and indeed he’s the one who works hardest to keep it alive. But he’s done his own fair share of other projects. And it turns out he’s a damn good writer, too.
The Road to Mars is a science fiction novel about two comedians on an interplanetary comedy tour and the trouble they get into. But like all the best science fiction, this is also a look at present-day ideas—in particular at the nature of comedy and comedians, as seen through the eyes of someone who desperately wants to understand it.
The three main protagonists of the book are an Abbot and Costello style duo, Alex Muscroft and Lewis Ashby, and their robotic secretary, Carleton (a “Bowie” model android who is based on David Bowie’s 1985 look).
Carleton is, in a sense, the protagonist, since this is a story that takes place in two different times—with Carleton being interviewed by a professor of micropaleontology in the 25th century, telling him about the adventures he was on with Muscroft and Ashby in the 24th century.
After accidentally insulting Brenda Wolley, an aging but influential diva, the pair end up losing their other gigs out Saturn way and have to take the long road to Mars, picking up any work they can along the way. They end up entwined in a terrorist plot, encountering a mysterious and seductive woman, and various other notorious individuals, all the while being observed by (and often rescued by) Carlton.
What makes the story stand out is Carleton’s attempt to understand the nature of comedy, comedians, and irony. With him we have an outsider’s perspective and become privy to his theories and musings on the matter. For example, we see comedians like Muscroft and Ashby being divided up between the “Red Nose” and “White Face” archetypes—both necessary components and different facets of comedy. The Red Nose is the boisterous and energetic slapstick type, while the White Face is the serious and grave deadpan type. But that’s not to say the White Face is without humor, it’s simply of a different sort.
The book is full of reflections of the nature of comedy through the ages as seen through Carleton’s unique perspective, often borrowed from long-standing traditions (such as the Red Nose/White Face dynamic). Though not everyone fits into these categories neatly. As Eric himself said about the concept:
“Steve Martin called me the other day, and said he finally got it. He was a Red Nose masquerading as a White Face, which I thought was a very interesting twist on it… That’s why Steve Martin is so confusing, because on the face of it, he looks like a White Face but he is in fact loveable. So that’s why I think he tends to go Red Nosing.”
At one point, while stranded and freezing in the cold of space, the android realizes that levity is the opposite of gravity, the fundamental force that causes the universe to expand. We also learn of his desire to attempt comedy himself, something that should be impossible for an android. We know that by the 25th century he has performed—once—but what actually happened on stage is a lingering mystery throughout the book.
On top of Carleton’s retelling of events, we also see things from the perspective of Dr. William Reynolds, the professor of micropaleontology mentioned earlier. We learn more about the professor as the story goes on, because he’s having his own personal problems, and in fact is becoming somewhat unwound by them.
However, I think it’s important to make one thing clear before you decide to read this. If you are expecting to find Monty Python in print, you are going to be sorely disappointed. This is not a hilarious book. It’s amusing and wry, but oddly enough, I hesitate in calling it a comedy. It actually takes its subject matter quite seriously, and is even suspenseful in all the right places. I think that lead to a number of negative reviews when it was first released in 1999.
They expected the Red Nose, what they got was the White Face.