by Ron KaplanSeptember, 1999
Picture Hope and Crosby in space. But instead of Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, there's an android in drag. Now you've got the general idea behind The Road to Mars, the zany sci-fi novel by Eric Idle, an original member of the zany comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Idle is not new to the written forum. His previous works include a novel, Hello, Sailor,; a play, Pass the Butler; and a children's novel, The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat, for which he received a Grammy nomination.
The author spins a yarn reminiscent of the works of Douglass Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, et al). The comedy team of Lewis Ashby and Alex Muscroft, along with Carlton, their robot-Friday, are simply trying to land a good gig. Instead they find themselves caught up in interstellar intrigue complete with crumbling planets, terrorists, anti-terrorists, gravity-free romance, and a diva on the order of one of today's most popular (some would say grating) talk show hostesses.
The duo, based on the likes of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and similar slim/portly comedians, finds a cushy job aboard the equivalent of a premier luxury-liner, only to see their subsequent jobs canceled, seemingly by the husband of the diva, whom they may have inadvertently insulted. From there, the twisting plot takes them to a space colony where havoc breaks loose: the city's protective dome cracks, causing the chaos and confusion on which the author seems to pride himself. The Road to Mars is, in a sense, similar to Idle's Circus days: it's a bit mad-dash, all over the place. There is the main story, which is told in something of a flashback style by the narrator, who has his own agenda. Then there's the subplot, as Carlton searches for the meaning of comedy in the universe. (His theory, that levity is the opposite of gravity, would earn him the Nobel Prize if he were human). Like a tone-deaf whistler attempting a pleasant air, his efforts are an indication that no matter how well you try to build an artificial person, there are some things you just can't include. This has long been a subplot for robot lore in science fiction. Data, the android on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has also made an effort to dissect and incorporate humor into his programming.
The narrator has a tendency to break into the story at inopportune moments, but that just enhances the drama, especially towards the end, when all plot lines hurtle together and bring the tale crashing to the climax.
Ron Kaplan has two baseball book columns online, purebaseball.com and warningtrack.net.