The Road to Mars: A Post-Modem Novel is a comedic Science Fiction thriller by Eric Idle. (Yes, that Eric Idle.) It's a story about comedy and fame and the lives of working comedians. Set in space apparently just to mess with our heads.
Muscroft and Ashby are a pair of not-very-well-known comedians, currently working the "Road to Mars", a term for the great empty spaces past the orbit of Mars, where the sparsely scattered population is starved for entertainment. They are accompanied by their robot, Carlton, who was built to look exactly like David Bowie. Carlton is, though they don't know it, obsessed with becoming the first AI to understand comedy, and is studying the pair even as he serves them.
Luck strikes, and Muscroft and Ashby get offered a regular gig on an interplanetary cruise ship, The Princess Di. It's not quite the same as being discovered, but it's a good first step. Unfortunately, the gig means working in close proximity to the unpleasant diva, Brenda Woolley, a singer trying desperately to deny the ravages of age. Even more unfortunately, the ship is being targeted by terrorists.
The whole story is told through the framing device of a future researcher who has recently discovered Carlton's long-lost published analysis of the nature of comedy, thinks it's brilliant, and is hoping to leverage it for his own fame.
Tropes featured include:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Bowie androids like Carlton are renowned for their eccentricity, but other robots show signs of this as well. They often talk back to humans, and at least one is shown defying orders to protect Carlton from being recycled.
- Boke and Tsukkomi Routine: The narration discusses various theories of comedies; one of them, called "White Face and Red Nose", is very similar to this trope. The White Face commands the respect of the audience and gives voice to their incredulity while the Red nose begs for the audience's comaraderie in his defiance of authority.
- Does Not Understand Sarcasm: While Carlton has an intellectual understanding of concepts like sarcasm and irony, in conversation they're usually lost on him.
- Dude, She's Like, in a Coma!: Alex's reaction when Carlton wants him to look at the unconscious Katy's body. Carlton actually wanted him to see the bruises left by her interrogators.
- Famous, Famous, Fictional: Early in the book: "Hamlet and Falstaff. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Laurel and Hardy. Muscroft and Ashby." Subverted in that Muscroft and Ashby are two of the story's main characters.
- Fantastic Racism: Carlton is denied consideration for a doctorate because the study of humor is considered exclusive to humans. Reynolds calls this "DNAcism."
- Mundane racism and homophobia are implied to still exist as well.
- Mr. Fanservice: In-universe, Carlton (an android built to look like David Bowie circa 1983) is marketed as such. His advertising copy describes him as "a cross between a wet dream and a wank."
- Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Hovers around a 3. All space travel and communications are slower than light, and the spacecraft and habitats are all plausible (if not necessarily practical). On the other hand, an entire new branch of physics gets invented, and there are some rather fundamental mistakes.
- No Ending: Appropriate, considering the author.
- The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Carlton is trying to break into a computer using the most advanced hacking algorithms possible. Eventually he thinks of looking for a simple word as the password. He explains that password breaking programs have become so complex that it's now possible to fool them by going under their level of complexity with very simple passwords.
- The Prima Donna: Brenda Wooley.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Carlton's theory of humor divides comedians into to categories. The White Face roughly corresponds to the Blue Oni, while the Red Nose corresponds (fittingly enough) to the Red.
- Refuge in Audacity: Booper's schtick.
- Self-Deprecation: Many 20th-century comedians are mentioned, but the only ones that get any real criticism are Monty Python.
- Sound In Space: Played with - Lewis can't hear Carlton shouting for help outside the ship... because the window is soundproofed.
- Straight Man: Onstage, Lewis to Alex. Offstage, Carlton to both.
- Straight Man and Wise Guy: Lewis Ashby and Alex Muscroft, respectively.
- Vaudeville: The titular Road to Mars is an interplanetary vaudeville circuit.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Mrs. Greenaway, the robotic housekeeper on the Johnny Ray, might as well be named Yenta.
- Zero-G Spot: Described as "like having sex inside a water bed."