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Book Review: "The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel"

Filed under: Clips

The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel, by Eric Idle; Pantheon, $24

By Emily Gordon

Consider the question: What makes Monty Python so funny? Before you run for cover, fearing bands of TV-mad academics and 12-year- olds with the complete script of “Dead Parrot” at the ready, ponder this analysis: “Five limeys and a Yank. No girls; they did drag. Typical Brits. They’re never happier than when dressing up as women… . It’s all very silly nonsense. They seem dangerously cuckoo to me.”

This dismissal - written by the fictional Professor William Reynolds at the end of the 25th century - is the work of master Python Eric Idle. His new novel, The Road to Mars, brings the philosophy of humor into the future - which, in Idle’s vision, is populated by almost-human robots, divas with an intergalactic audience that puts Murdoch and Turner to shame, cruiselike spaceships with enough live entertainment to last a light-year and your garden- variety stand-up comics.

The philosophy part of it all is the preoccupation of Professor Reynolds, who’s actually narrating a story that takes place 80 years earlier, in the late 2300s. Way back then, a robot named Carlton puts a lot of work into a dissertation on what makes humans laugh. He calls it De Rerum Comoedia: A Discourse on Humor, and by the time he’s done, he feels (or thinks, anyway) that he’s hit upon the Unified Theory of Everything.

This fascinates Carlton because of whose droid he is: two comedians, Alex Muscroft (the short, manic one) and Lewis Ashby (the tall, laconic one). In fact, Carlton concludes excitedly, if his calculations and deductions about comedy are right, “Now they might not even have to do it anymore.” But Reynolds, having discovered this treatise in some abandoned university files, has a nefarious plan to use Carlton’s conclusions for his own fame (and to win back his fickle girlfriend).

The bulk of the novel, though, concerns the adventures of Muscroft and Ashby, as they’re known on the circuit, and their run-ins with a host of sci-fi personalities: the villainous ship’s captain, the beautiful woman with a habit of flirting with men and then planting explosive cybermines on the premises, the mysterious old man from a renegade planet and, of course, the ubiquitous diva whose ego and sense of hubris could easily eclipse the sun.

Stuff blows up; people pop into History Bars, where the 20th century is undergoing a kitschy revival; wisecracks abound, and all the while, Carlton, “tintellectual” extraordinaire, is trying to make sense of it even though, as his Oz counterpart lacked a heart, he’s minus a funny bone. All of this is, as the hapless Professor Reynolds would say, very silly nonsense. But like everyone with a shipshape sense of humor, Idle knows not to take himself too seriously. The Road to Mars has the quality of the gently nutty Python sketches - the proper newscaster oblivious to the tide coming in, the broad satire of the courtroom scenes, the surreal animation - rather than the pure brilliant rage of a John Cleese explosion.

But if there were only one way to make humans laugh, the world would be a very dismal place indeed. Eric Idle makes sure it isn’t.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 9, 1999 (originally published in Newsday)

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