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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Road to Mars

Eric Idle

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To purchase The Road to Mars

Title: The Road to Mars
Author: Eric Idle
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 309 pages
Availability: The Road to Mars - US
The Road to Mars - UK
The Road to Mars - Canada
Die Reise zum Mars - Deutschland
  • A Post Modem Novel

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Our Assessment:

C : a frustrating failure of a book with some wit but little humor.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian C- 9/9/1999 Phil Daoust
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 19/9/1999 Gary Kamiya
People D 27/9/1999 Ralph Novak
San Francisco Chronicle A- 26/9/1999 David Wiegand
The Times B- 11/9/1999 Peter Ingham

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most think the book is a failure. No one has any patience with Idle expounding on the theory of comedy. Most are disappointed that it is not as funny as one might or should expect (Idle having set the bar high with Monty Python), though some think there is enough to make it readable.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(C)omic sci-fi must be at least consistently funny or scientifically tenable, and this book is neither." - Phil Daoust, The Guardian

  • "(T)he whole of the book is less than its parts: it's neither funny enough to take off as a comic novel nor meaty enough to be particularly provocative." - Gary Kamiya, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(O)nly sporadically witty and never funny." - Ralph Novak, People

  • "Idle more than overcomes the book's weak story line with a steady stream of goofy humor, tortured puns and inside jokes." - David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A)s a piece of summer froth, The Road to Mars is sufficiently entertaining to pass away an afternoon. And, after all, Idle's past achievements have certainly earned him a generous dollop of indulgence. A bit of a clunker but a forgiveable one." - Peter Ingham, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Road to Mars is a fairly ambitious novel about comedy. Micropaleontologist Bill Reynolds writes the book several centuries in the future, based largely on a doctoral thesis submitted by an android named Carlton in the late 2300s. Carlton -- a model "4.5 Bowie" droid -- worked for two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby, who plied the interplanetary entertainment circuit hoping finally to make it big on Mars, the ultimate stage. Carlton's thesis, De rerum comoedia - A Discourse on Humour, tries to (and eventually does) explain what the secret behind the strange human concept of "humour" is, as well as recounting the "fun" adventures of Muscroft and Ashby. An android with no understanding of irony, he is meant to be the ultimate straight man.
       Muscroft and Ashby get involved in a huge political conspiracy, pawns in a larger game that they do not comprehend, their only goal being to get a decent gig wherever they can. A variety of other figures come into play -- a wife, a daughter, a diva, a lost father -- in a plot that gets fairly complex. The plot itself is not half bad, and might have made for a decent book if Idle had stuck to it. Unfortunately, he got far too ambitious.
       Carlton and Bill Reynolds both spend much too much space discoursing on humour -- and unfortunately those parts just aren't very funny. At every opportunity, usually several times a page, comedy is commented upon and analyzed. And each of the short chapters in the book comes with an "amusing" (and rarely relevant) epigraph, some from real comedians, some from characters in the book (or Carlton's thesis). Many of these pithy sayings about humour are clever enough petit bon mots. But Idle does not manage to string them together in any way that might help his story along. He writes about humour, and he manages to bore us.
       Idle actually writes fairly well, which is part of what makes the book so frustrating: he writes well and leads us nowhere. If he had concentrated on the plot, rather than the asides (most of which fall very flat), he might have written a decent book. As is he has written two separate things, neither of which is complete and which do not fit together.
       There is some wit here -- some decent repartee (though, surprisingly, the dialogue is much weaker than the descriptive sections) -- but most of it seems more clever and contrived than funny. The book's subtitle (the meaningless description A Post Modem Novel) can stand as one of the less clever examples of his failures. When Idle concentrates on the plot the book occasionally becomes entertaining, and he has one true success with a particularly nasty and intelligent mechanical bug, but overall he falls far short of even Red Dwarf standards for amusing science fiction.
       The book is too serious, and the insights into humour too forced. It does not read well, digresses too far, has both a plot and a narrative device that are unnecessarily complex, and it rarely amuses. Idle has talent but he manages to bury it in this misguided effort. Watch Monty Python reruns, or wait for his next effort. Recommended only for those interested in what comedians think about comedy (and who know not to expect those thoughts to be much fun).

       P.S.: There is cleverness in this book, for example when Reynolds writes:

(...) and Mehta & Asher are keen to issue a large printing of my book. I have not been idle.
       The not so subtle reference is to (Sonny) Mehta and (Martin) Asher, the Random House big wigs who greenlighted Idle's effort (and opted for the 50,000 first printing). Editors both (in chief, no less) they apparently offered little editorial advice (this heap of a book begs for tautening and tightening and radical cuts) -- figuring, perhaps, that Idle's name would sell the book. Unfortunately, as "Reynolds" (speaking for Idle) also writes in the above cited passage: "I have not been idle." Indeed, Eric Idle has not been Eric Idle, Monty Python alumnus, in this book, serving up a different kind of "humour" here that isn't near as funny as what readers hope for and expect. (Of course, as his most recent venture was to appear on the sit-com Suddenly Susan expectations can rightly be drastically lowered, and we do admit that the book does live up to a Judd Nelson/Brooke Shields level of humour.)

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The Road to Mars: Reviews: Eric Idle: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Eric Idle was one of the original members of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Active as a writer and actor, his career has reached its nadir with his short-lived appearance as a regular on the situation "comedy" Suddenly Susan (starring Brooke Shields) where he replaced star actor Judd Nelson. The series was promptly cancelled.

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