Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Aug 21 23:43:44 EDT 1991

Raymond's Reviews #139

%T Voyage to the Red Planet
%A Terry Bisson
%I Avon
%D September 1991
%O paperback, US$4.25
%P 236
%G ISBN 0-380-75574-2

For once, the back-cover blurb doesn't lie. This really is a very funny novel with a bite underneath the gags. It takes all the cliches of Man Exploring The Solar System, Head Held High, and inverts them to hilarious effect.

It is sometime in the not-too-distant future. The U.S. government has long since sold off its space program (along with the Navy, the Park Service, the Smithsonian and about everything else). The lawyers and megacorporations are kings. The Soviet Union is gone. And the only entity left with both the money and the desire to finish an abandoned Mars project is --- Hollywood.

Hollywood, in the person of a B-movie producer named Markson trying for the coup of his career. So he assembles a crew; an ex-cosmonaut, an ex-astronaut, a Hollywood doctor, a dwarf production genius and two Movie Stars. No mistake about the capitals; Cary Fonda-Fox IV and Beverly Glen are gene-engineered thoroughbreds born to a hereditary aristocracy. They board a mothballed Mars ship completed years before one step ahead of a pack of lawyers and head for the Red Planet to make the ultimate docu-drama.

The plot doesn't really matter much in this book. It's the sparks it spins off in all directions that entertain --- Bisson's funny, half-savage reflections on show business run amuck and what happens when art and life promiscuously imitate each other to provide cheap thrills for an audience that never really cared anyhow.

He also has a lot of fun dynamiting the high seriousness of most projections of space travel. In one priceless trashing of the astronauts-coming-out-of-hibernation scene, they are deliberately awakened by a sound "most Americans associate with comfort and security" --- the audio tracks from cheesy Saturday morning cartoons.

A lot of other authors would have continually mugged the reader with significance, turning the book into a very depressing and nasty production relieved only by the implied exhortation that you ought to be enjoying this message because it's good for you. Not Bisson; he likes his characters and is too busy having a good time to be really heavy.

All the same, expect to feel a few barbs. Bisson's novel of the future is very much a satire about our present. But a serious flaw in that respect is that Bisson can't seem to decide what to be angry about. On an ethical level his whole future sucks and everyone is guilty, if only by acquiescence; even his revolutionaries are sad failures. The edgy post-modern humor is matched by a paralyzing post-modern vagueness about what went wrong and why, a sort of permanent floating alienation that makes refusal to take a definite ethical stance into a virtue.

The result is a funny book that wants to be something more but never quite makes it. You can see the tag-ends of a moral argument hanging here and there, but they never come together. Bisson seems content to disturb, to joke, to suggest, to allude, rather than even implying anything really thought-provoking as an alternative to what he's spoofing. Though in some ways that makes for a more easily digestible kind of humor, it rather vitiates the book as satire.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Aug 21 23:43:44 EDT 1991

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>