The Road To Mars: a post-modem novel by Eric Idle. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. ISBN 0-375-70312-8
"I laughed, I cried, and then I read the book."
"Part biting satire, part loony vaudeville, part comic dissertation, The Road to Mars will make you bark."
In The Road To Mars, Eric Idle (yes, he of Monty Python fame) tells the story of a pair of comedians, Alex Muscroft and Lewis Ashby, and their quest for fame, fortune, and the planet Mars, which is the Hollywood of our Solar System in the future it describes. Their story is a vehicle for extensive rambling philosophical discussions of the nature of humor, as provided by its narrator, a micropaleontologist who studies the evolutionary implications of the past ten minutes, and the duo's robot servant, Carlton, who is writing a dissertation on comedy (see Pseudo_Intellectual's excellent writeup on The White Face / Red Nose continuum for a sample of Carlton's take on the phenomena he observes).
Idle takes jabs at fame, fortune, and his own experiences with such as a Pythoner:
He is looking for evidence of a comedy or even a show biz gene. Well, why not? There's clearly a music gene: the Bachs, the Mozarts, the Strausses. There's a literature gene—the Brontes, the Dumas, père et fils, the Amises—so why not a comedy gene? He thinks he almost finds some evidence with one of the guys on a very weird show called Monty Python's Flying Circus. I've seen the tapes, and boy, does it suck. It's strange rather than funny. Five limeys and a Yank. No girls; they did drag. Typical Brits. They're never happier than when dressing up as women. What is it with them?
It's a stupid show, as I say, and Carlton found it totally puzzling. Heads come off or pop open in demented animations, sheep drop on people's heads for no reason whatsoever, Vikings sing love songs to pressed meat, weird men dressed as old ladies squeak in silly voices, there are dead parrots, and Spanish Inquisitions, it's all very silly nonsense. They seem dangerously cuckoo to me. Carlton couldn't make head or tail of it, but it seemed from the tape that the audience laughed, and as far as he could tell it was genuine, not canned, laughter. In casually cross-checking the genetic backgrounds of the six strange men involved, he turned up an ancestor for one of them in show biz. Eric Idle's great-grandfather Henry Bertrand, a Victorian gentleman from the 1890's, had been a circus manager. Was this the genetic missing link? His great-grandfather was a ringmaster in a circus and Idle was in a Flying Circus. Surely this was significant? Of course it wasn't. Turned out Idle was screwed up by losing his RAF rear-gunner father in a traffic accident in World War Two (irony, eh?—killed coming home on Christmas leave after surviving the war). This was compounded by being stuck in a semiorphanage for twelve years with a bunch of fatherless boys. The circus thing was just a coincidence. But you can see the lengths he went to in searching for the comedy gene. (146-7)
And if Eric Idle being self-deprecating isn't enough to make you run out and get this book right now, The Road To Mars also contains what might be my favorite literary sex scene of all time. It's spread across several chapters while some very important plot action advances elsewhere, but here's an excerpt:
He was fascinated. Of course he knew the mating habits of the human but he had no firsthand knowledge. He was surprised by the frenetic way they went about it. How interesting. They're having sex, he observed. But what is so funny? How come they're laughing? What has laughter to do with this? They both seem to be laughing with joy....
"That looks uncomfortable," thought Carlton, but Alex was laughing and laughing. (196-7)
And finally, along similar lines, one more excerpt for (and from) the Road. I think this exchange really highlights the Muscroft-Ashby dynamic in all kinds of good ways:
"We know where light comes from, but where does darkness come from?"
It was one of their old routines on the Joke Box.
"I don't know, Alex."
"You know the speed of light?"
"Well, I know the speed of night."
"I know the speed of darkness."
Lewis would raise his eyes and look at the audience. Inviting them, like him, to be baffled by the stupidity of this simple child.
"Yes. It is the same as the speed of light."
"Really? And how do you know that?"
"Well, you know if you turn off the light in the bathroom."
"Then when light stops rushing out of the lightbulb at 186,000 miles a second..."
"...darkness comes rushing in at exactly the same speed."
Alex beamed in triumph.
"If it came any faster, then it would get dark before you turned the light off. Which would be tremendously inconvenient every time you went to the bathroom. You'd be about to put the light off and it would go all black as darkness came in rushing in faster than light and you'd keep bumping into the wall looking for the switch."
"Well, that is fascinating, thank you for sharing that..."
"I know the sound of light."
"The sound of light."
"The sound of light?"
"Yes, it's a little like a very high-pitched fart."
Alex made a thin noise with his lips.
"Phhhht. Like that."
"That's the sound of light?"
"Yes. Phhht. Only you can't hear it, because it's moving away from you so very fast."
"If you could take a pair of ears and accelerate them to 186,000 miles a second, then that's all you'd hear. Phhhht. But obviously you can't, so you don't hear anything."
"Well, thank you very much for sharing all this..."
"I know the taste of light too."
"Yes, it tastes like pussy."
At this point Lewis would chase Alex off stage.