Planet of the Apes by Boulle, Pierre, trans. by Xan Fielding, 1963

Planet of the Apes by Boulle, Pierre, trans. by Xan Fielding - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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One of the things I have been most interested in lately is identifying and reading SF novels produced by mainstream writers. I know that I have rambled on about this in the past so I'll spare you the repetitive details this time around. But I do have one other observation that I have not really spoken about until now. I've known about certain mainstream writers who have SF titles for years, but it's only recently that I have learned that some of them have multiple SF stories to their credit. Pierre Boulle and Gore Vidal come to mind. Upton Sinclair, Martin and Kingsley Amis, and others come to mind too, as examples of well known writers who have pretty deep SF catalogs. With just a little bit of research I have managed to add about 35 SF novels and short stories to my list.

Today’s novel, Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, translated by Xan Fielding, is one of the better known of these types of works. In this well crafted Swiftian-style satire the author endeavors to point out the animalistic motivations for the "well reasoned" decisions that we humans make on a daily basis, and to turn on their ears the racial and inter-species games that we humans play. On the planet Soror, which circles the red giant Betelgeuse, there were four main species of hominids. The humans were mindless and animal-like, and were frequently the subject of cruel and heartless experimentation, mostly to answer medical and evolutionary questions. The Apes were the dominant species. Gorillas were tough and domineering and generally served as enforcers, soldiers, hunters and governors. Orangutans made up the class of respected scientists, theorists and philosophers. They were intelligent but intellectually rigid and politically motivated, and were capable of anything when it came to protecting their intellectual integrity. Last were the chimps, who were bright, inquisitive and fair minded, and were under the thumbs of the orangutans and the gorillas. On the whole the Apes were very interested in the biological sciences, and virtually everything that was culturally important to them came down to the biological implications.

Into this world came a STL spacecraft from Earth bearing Ulysse Merou, a journalist, Dr. Antelle, a scientist who built the craft, and a young physician, whose place in the novel was unimportant. Antelle and crew were on a voyage to escape the pressures and boredoms of Earth. Because of time dilation only a few years passed during their voyage, but thousands of years passed in undilated space. They travelled to Betelgeuse not knowing what they would find, and landed on the only habitable planet in the system. Once on the ground they were besieged by feral, non-speaking humans who tore their clothes from their bodies, wrested their tools from them and smashed them, and destroyed their landing craft. Soon after that intelligent, rifle-wielding gorillas came into the jungle and slew and captured as many of the wild humans as possible, caged them and delivered them to the orangutans at a medical facility for evolutionary experimentation. Merou and Antille, the two survivors of the hunt, were caged in different wards. Merou was caged with a woman he called Nova, a loving, sweet and stunningly beautiful creature who eventually became his mate. Inside the facility Merou met Zira, an open-minded chimpanzee female who saw the spark of intelligence in Merou’s manner, then along with her fiancee Cornelius helped him to assert himself and prove his intelligence to a gathering of important Ape scientists. She also helped him avoid Dr. Zaius, the harsh orangutan overseer of the research center.

Most of the elements in the story were meant to be metaphors or direct references to aspects of the human condition. The overarching theme of the story is fear of the other. Once Merou proved to the gathering of scientists that he was intelligent he was freed and given busy-work to do. Later on Nova became pregnant the tide of public and scientific sentiment turned against him. "What if this human child is intelligent," many of the Apes worried. At that time in the Apes were deeply concerned with the Ascent of Ape question; They had found some evidence that on Soror human beings were the first species to achieve sentience, then they had uplifted the Apes to serve as house-servants and manual laborers. From there the Apes became sentient an took over the planet, and forced mankind out into the wild where they reverted to mere animals. The Apes found this frightening, so it was not public knowledge. When Nova became pregnant they started plotting how to remove Merou and his family without attracting attention because they feared eventually being out-bred and defeated by a reinvigorated, intelligent race of men.

Boulle is well known for the barbs he masterfully sinks into various hides. His voice is full of irony, and while the tone of his prose is only slightly sarcastic, when taken as a whole the work is dripping with it. He has well-informed opinions here on the issues of social and hierarchical organization of society, racism, animal rights, the nature of intelligence, sex and love, and probably most important, the right to self determination. Interestingly, and this is something that I have taken note of before in non-English SF works, the discussion of individual rights is much purer and closer to a social ideal than in any English, and in particular any U.S. SF that I know of. Specifically, English/Anglo SF is usually overly concerned with the rights of the individual. Thus our works tend to be full of heroic imagery, individual determination and cults of personality. In this book and in other translations the focus is often on the way that an individual fits into society, thus the true focus is on society itself. In this story it is vitally important that Ulysse not only prove his intelligence, but that he be allowed to be a human being within the society of Apes. If he fails to do the first, he will likely become fodder for the Apes genetic experimentation. If he fails to do the latter, then everything that was great about the human race will be lost forever. The threats that Ulysse encounters are to more than his body. Antille survived the hunt and captivity, but months and months in his cell with other feral humans have driven him to "ape" his fellow captives; when Ulysse got to him he was as mindless as the rest, and refused to gather his wits again. Antille had become inculcated into the race of men on Soror. Ulysse felt the same pressures even after he was released from his cell. He found himself drawn romantically to Zira, and felt other pressures to conform in ways that he would previously have found repugnant. In this case rather than being drawn down as Antille was, Ulysse felt the same pressure but was drawn u p. The greater story is about the way that humans strive for some station in life; some artificial place that we think will give the effect of happiness. It's rather complex, but it's about alienation and inculcation all at the same time; it's about what happens when the mythic "Other" becomes ambiguous - and thus less "other," - because individual identity has become warped by environment and experience.

If you have only seen the movie(s), especially that celluloid travesty with Marky-Mark, give the novel a chance. I promise that you will not be disappointed, and while the Statue of Liberty scene was one that was fabricated for the original film, there are a series of earth shattering revelations at the end of the book that more than make up for its loss.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)

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