Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
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Pierre Boulle's 1963 Planet of the Apes, the jumping-off point of the significantly different 1968 film, is a novel anyone interested in science fiction naturally would want to read. The start--not the narrative frame, but the start of the main plot itself--is strangely broad and vague and happenstance, with a nineteenth-century Verne-esque whiff that I confess I did not find appealing, but the novel gradually got better and better. I still found the piece to be in the 3.5-star region, so I'll round up to 4 stars.

The narrative frame opens with the "wealthy leisured couple," Jinn and Phyllis, "spending a wonderful holiday, in space, as far away as possible from the inhabited stars" (Signet paperback 11th printing, page 5). After all, "[i]n those days interplanetary voyages were an everyday occurrence, and interstellar travel was not uncommon" (page 5). Now, the lightsail craft Jinn and Phyllis has is niftily designed indeed, and even though their star system has three suns, it's still a tad hard to imagine how the ship can maneuver so quickly and abruptly, and how the couple can travel anywhere without spending years and years, but...oh, well. Suffice it to say that they're out on a holiday, and they find a literal message in a corked glass bottle, "a large number of very thin sheets, covered with tiny handwriting" (page 7-8). Yes, it's "written in the language of the Earth," but Jinn can understand this "perfectly, having been partly educated on that planet" (page 8)--having traveled there and back on something faster than a lightsail or also-mentioned rockets, hopefully--so we may settle ourselves in for a 121-page verbatim reading.

In the year 2500, the first Terran interstellar expedition is organized not by some classically science-fictional world government, not by some international space agency, not even by a single country, but solely by "the learned Professor Antelle" (page 9), who apparently can design a relativistic starship from scratch the way Professor Cavor in H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon could do for a antigravity lunar ship or the beautifully wooden Dr. Herndon could do in the then-contemporaneous 1930s for a nuclear-powered colony ship in Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's When Worlds Collide. And on this "ambitious project, the most ambitious that had ever been conceived on Earth" (page 8), should we have a sizeable crew with varied skills, like perhaps a nuclear engineer, someone cross-trained in geology and meteorology, a physician who is also an evolutionary biologist, and whatnot? Nope--there are just the mastermind professor, "his disciple Arthur Levain, a young physician with a great future; and [the narrator], Ulysse Merou, a little-known journalist who had met the professor as a result of an interview" and who had been invited Antelle discovered he "had no family and played chess reasonably well" (pages 11-12).

So the three hop to Betelgeuse, running near c. With the "in for a penny, in for a pound" logic of time dilation, after all, heading 300-odd light years will take hardly any more time for those aboard ship than the wee 4.3-light-year jaunt to Proxima Centauri would have. Peculiarly enough, however--when compared to real life, of course, rather than to this tale--Antelle does not explain to the narrator the choice for the farther destination until "during the voyage" (page 9). No matter, though, for Merou, who already has committed himself to exile from Earth for "seven or eight hundred years," prior to this explanation does not even realize that it is the periods of acceleration and deceleration at the beginning and end of each voyage that will make the journey each way will feel like "two years" rather than "only a few days or a few hours" (page 10). For his part, the leader "prefer[s] to aim at a distant point straight away, in the hope of finding a world very different from [their] own" (page 10).

Yet of course the second of four planets they eventually discover in the Betelgeuse system actually "b[ears] a strange resemblance to Earth" (page 13). Oh, the geography is different, naturally, but it's a world of oxy-nitrogen atmosphere, though "slightly tinted with a pale green color verging from time to time on yellow" (page 13), a world with a carbon-oxygen life cycle of green and russet forests and jungle, a world that...well, happens to be inhabited with intelligence, we are told with something of a shrug. The Terrans' transatmospheric lander zips over a city with roads and traffic, "broad streets and white houses with long straight lines," and then eventually Antelle picks a landing site "fairly far from civilized regions," and "the robots" work their "system of retrorockets" (page 14).

Casual and, despite the precaution of being "armed with carbines" (page 15), somewhat boyish jungle exploration ensues. At the edge of a waterfall-fed pool they find footprints, and then the source, described in faintly Barsoomian terminology: "a woman--a young girl, rather"--who "reveals herself to [them] dripping with spray, illuminated by the blood-red beams of Betelgeuse," a creature "boldly assert[ing] her femininity in the light of this monstrous sun, completely naked and without any ornament other than her hair, which [hangs] down to her shoulders" (page 17). This princess is closer to animal than human in behavior, however, and there are no strange four-armed fighting creatures here either. It's Planet of the Apes, not Planet of the Tharks, and therefore eventually, after puddling giddily together on the pool, the narrator and his chums encounter those apes.

Not wanting to give away specifics of the plot, I'll simply comment that Merou ends up being captured by the intelligent apes, who in the novel are uncannily similar to humans of the twentieth century. When he first glimpses one of the ruling species of this world, the narrator, after his initial "amazement" and "stupefaction" (page 30), hastens to explain that "the ape [is] correctly dressed, like a man of our world, and above all...[wears] his clothes in such an easy manner. .... [H]e [is] not in any way disguised (page 31; emphasis Boulle's). Apparently Earth of 2500 hasn't changed an awful lot in 500 or 600 years, because Merou describes the human-hunter like a European big-game hunter in Africa, circa 1930 or 1950:

"He was dressed as you or I are, I mean as you or I would be if we were taking part in one of those drives organized for ambassadors or other distinguished persons at official shooting parties. His dark-brown jacket seemed to be made by the best Paris tailor and revealed underneath a checked shirt of the kind our sportsmen wear. His breeches, flaring out slightly above his calves, terminated in a pair of leggings." (page 31)

Cute. And once some humans are killed and other suitable specimens are netted, the prizes are taken to a structure with "red tiled roof, green shutters, and an inscription on a panel at the entrance, look[ing] like an inn," where "lady gorillas [sit] around in armchairs chatting together in the shade" or perhaps enjoy "sipping a drink through straw" (page 35). Yes, "[i]t [is] a classical hunting scene," complete with quaint big-box camera on a tripod so a photographer can shoot the hunters "first individually, in good poses, some of them placing one foot on one of their victims with a triumphant air; then as a compact group, each of them putting an arm around his neighbor's shoulder," and follow up with shots of "[t]he she-gorillas...assum[ing] graceful postures in front of the slaughter, with their decorated hats well to the fore" (page 36).

Thus the satirical skewering of the Hairless Ape of Sol III as reflected in its furrier Betelgeusian equivalent continues throughout the book. Hunting, biological experimentation, supposed higher education, zoos-- You name it, and Boulle will tweak it. What does it mean to be human, or at least humane? we are asked implicitly. Some of Boulle's observations seem spot-on, though some assertions of too-quick degeneration of intelligence do seem peculiar to me--and after its strange Verne-esque beginnings, the plot settles down into something more granular, more credible, more probing.

And the end, which the films primes us to anticipate as a beautiful volta? Well, I will comment that it is nothing like the film's ending, but just prior to the close of the narrative frame--which has a twist we probably have been suspecting--there indeed is a bit of a shockeroo. Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes is an unusual, sardonic little book which, despite a strange flavor here and there, nevertheless definitely is worth the read.

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Reading Progress

May 6, 2021 – Started Reading
May 8, 2021 – Finished Reading
May 9, 2021 – Shelved

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