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Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle - Sci-Fi Classic Review



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Are you interested in my thoughts on Apple TV's Foundation? I'm doing a podcast with a friend of mine called "Cracking Foundation," available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more. Check it out!


Planet of the Apes
My copy looks like this

Despite being a lifelong fan of the Planet of the Apes movies and a huge supporter of the more recent reboot trilogy, I am ashamed to admit that, until now, I had never actually read the Pierre Boulle novel upon which the entire franchise is based. Part of it was the difficulty in tracking down an English-language copy, as the book, 1963's La Planète des singes, was originally penned in French. I had a vague idea about the book being wildly different from the 1968 adaptation I've seen approximately three gajillion times, but beyond that, I knew next to nothing about it.

When I finally found a copy collecting dust in a forgotten pile on the floor of a crowded used bookstore in downtown St. Louis, I was immediately startled to discover how short it is, coming it at just over a hundred pages in a paperback small enough to fit in my pocket. Then, when I read it, I was next surprised by how little the adaptation actually strays from the source material. Sure, there are some big differences--the technological capabilities of the ape society, where the thematic weight is applied, and of course, the twist ending--but even these differences aren't as great as I'd been lead to believe. However, I don't want to turn my review into a recitation of the differences between the book and the film (which I'm sure to discuss next week anyway). Instead, let's take Boulle's novel on its own merits, where we can dig deep into a pretty astonishing sci-fi tale that is more like Gulliver's Travels than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We are introduced to our main character through flashback, with a bookending story involving a couple in space happening upon a message in a bottle. Granted, the odds of coming across a single bottle floating through deep space are ridiculously remote, but you just have to go with it. I convinced myself that there must have been tens of thousands of these bottles scattered through the area, even though there's no evidence for it in the text and it presents its own credibility problems. Anyway, the protagonist is Ulysse Mérou, a journalist by trade who has embarked on a three-man (and one-ape) trip to the star Betelgeuse.

Planet of the Apes
The original French hardback

The space travel in this book acknowledges the difficulties of relativistic physics, so Ulysse knows that approximately a thousand years on Earth will pass while his round-trip journey will take only a handful of years for him. It also comes up with an interesting cheat for artificial gravity, assuming that half the trip is spent accelerating closer and closer to the speed of light at such a rate that there is always gravity against the aft of the vessel, while the other half is spent decelerating, reversing the gravity towards the fore. I have no idea if the math works out, but it's a neat concept you don't see very often, as most science-fiction prefers to use centrifugal force or technological black boxes.

Ulysse and his crew fall into a stable orbit around an Earth-like planet and use a smaller vehicle to land on the surface, where they are startled to find what appear to be functioning cities and lush forests. In the forest, they encounter what appear to be humans, though they are feral and animalistic, and are suddenly hunted down by a group of fully clothed apes who capture Ulysse and take him to a research facility where highly intelligent apes study the lesser humans in cages. Ulysse tries to convince these creatures of his nature, but the language barrier proves difficult to breach until one ape, a Chimpanzee named Zira, begins to realize that he is more than just an outlier human imitating his ape masters, much to the disapproval of her boss, the Orangutan Zaius.

The novel ultimately relies on this society of apes having risen over ten thousand years earlier from the ashes of a once flourishing human civilization, the apes having learned intelligence by copying their masters and using this intelligence to turn the tables. At one point, Ulysse visits an ape stock market, which is nearly identical to a human one aside from there being places for the apes to climb around in three dimensions, and it is here that Boulle hammers home his analogy. It is assumed at first that apes merely "ape" human intelligence, but Ulysse comes to realize that human intelligence is really no different, that the vast majority of human beings are no less behaviorally conditioned to their intelligent behavior and that, lacking true insight into that intelligence, they devolve into a mass of controlled insanity.

Planet of the Apes
I dig this cover the most

There's also a clever moment when one of the scientist apes, Cornelius, talks about the scientific assumptions concerning why apes were able to evolve intelligence while humans were not (this is before the truth about the distant past is known). Cornelius posits that having more agility and having hands for feet made apes more capable of moving--and therefore thinking--in three dimensions, which naturally spawned intelligence, while humanity was forced to struggle in its two-dimensional existence. There's more to it than that, but it's a cute bit of role reversal that makes similar assumptions made in our world about our own evolution, while facially logical and reasonable, absolutely absurd.

One part I will admit to not liking is near the end, however, when Cornelius uses some kind of brain stimulation to awaken the ancestral memories of a feral human, who is then able to "play back" the thoughts of various people who witnessed the end of human civilization and the rise of the apes. This is a clunky way to exposit what doesn't really need elaboration, and this information could have easily been relayed through the finding of diaries or something at the ancient ruin featured earlier in the book.

In my final analysis, though, Boulle's novel is a great piece of science-fiction literature that doesn't deserve to be so overshadowed by the various film adaptations that have been made out of it. It's well-written--even in translation--and filled with unique ideas that the films only flirt with. Its twist ending is no less powerful and horrifying than the more famous Rod Serling twist of the 1968 film, and fans of the franchise should absolutely give the book a chance. There's no denying Pierre Boulle's credentials as a literary icon, and there's still an important place for his original take on Planet of the Apes.



-e. magill 9/30/2021


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SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS:

BattyBatFirebrand
Chris Connell
David Murray
Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill
Myk OConnor
Paul Kyriazi
Rich Osborne
Sylar Magician
Warren Davis


Become a Patron today!
patreon.com/emagill


PLANET OF THE APES:
  • Planet of the Apes (novel)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes
  • Escape from the Planet of the Apes
  • Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
  • Battle for the Planet of the Apes
  • Planet of the Apes (2001)
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • War for the Planet of the Apes

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