In its original French, this novel is titled La Planète des singes. In the UK, it’s known as Monkey Planet. Whatever you want to call it, here in the States it’s the launching point of a cult classic franchise that makes me all kinds of nostalgic. Love me some Apes. Thing is, until now, I’ve never read the original novel. I know virtually everything about it and all the details that changed in the journey to the big screen, but I’d never actually read it. It’s a gross oversight that needed some serious correction.
Of course… much like with the classic movie monsters, whenever I’m immersed in something for the virtually the whole of my lifetime, it’s a bit of a challenge to step back, erase all expectations, and simply see the source material for what it is. Not impossible, mind you, just a challenge. I’m totally up for that. It’s always interesting to see where the foundations are in comparison to what became of it. For purposes of this spoilerific review, I invite you, dear reader, to do the same.
The main story is bookended by a framing story. It begins with a couple who are undescribed, Jinn and Phyllis, who are astronauts aboard a vessel with solar sails. It’s apparently vulgar for them to use the ship’s rockets. Less romantic, I suppose. Anyway, Jinn and Phyllis retrieve an actual message in a bottle from the depths of space that they encounter in their travels. Breaking the bottle, the message is a thick stack of rolled papers with tiny writing crammed onto it. What’s on those papers serves as the main story, making this an epistolary novel.
The manuscript is written by a journalist, Ulysse Mèrou. In the year 2500, he’s invited by the wealthy Professor Antelle to accompany him and his assistant, physician Arthur Levain, to the star system Betelgeuse. (Go ahead… say it three times. You know you want to. And try not to think of the Apes connection to Tim Burton.) The ship is able to travel just a fraction shy of the speed of light, creating a time dilation that causes centuries to pass on Earth during their two year voyage. When they land the Earth-like world that they name Sorer (Latin for “sister”), the discover fresh air and water, abundant food, and a beautiful naked woman whom they call Nova. Frightened of the men’s pet, a chimpanzee named Hector, Nova strangles the chimp with her bare hands. Her fellow tribal humans appear, destroying both the clothes and the shuttle our protagonists, exhibiting all the behavior of otherwise dumb animals.
Then comes the fox hunt. The humans are the foxes, chased and herded for spot by a gorillas with hunting clothes and firearms a la humanity’s 20th century, with the noticeable exception that they wear gloves on their prehensile feet instead of boots. Levain is killed, along with several other humans. Ulysse is captured with a number of survivors and brought to a city populated entirely by apes. They smoke tobacco, drink through straws, photograph themselves with their hunting “trophies”… all perfectly normal, and even a bit comical if not for the narrator telling us how funny it’s not.
The breakdown of their society is similar to that of the films. The gorillas are the muscle in charge of the police and military. The
closed-minded overly conservative orangutans are (surprise!) the politicians and religious leaders. And the more open-minded chimpanzees are, of course, the scientists.
Ulysse is taken to an animal research facility with Nova and a number of the survivors (but not all of them). He is mated with Nova, and he recognizes conditioned response testing a la Pavlov. One chimpanzee researcher, Zira, takes an interest in his geometric drawings and his ability to say a few simian words. (Note: in the film, Charlton Heston’s character has a throat injury that renders him mute.) Over the course of a few weeks, he is granted books and learns both the history and the language of the simians, and with the help of Zira’s fiancè, an archaeologist named Cornélius, Ulysse is able to deliver a speech at a scientific convention, resulting in his granted freedom as a rational being and tailored clothing (he’s been naked and chained up to this point). In the aftermath he becomes something of an overnight celebrity, being hounded by autograph seekers and such. We learn that Antelle was in a zoo, where he reverted to a primitive state indistinguishable from the native humans. For his safety, he’s moved to the lab, where he’s mated to a young female.
Cornèlius is excavating an ancient human city. Part of his research involves an unconscious human lab subject who recites from racial memory the events that led to the fall of humanity. It seems that humans tamed apes and used them as servants. The apes got smarter while the humans got lazy, physically and mentally, which allowed for the gradual takeover. Apes rose up and drove humans into camps, and then eventually attacked the camps.
Nova and Ulysse have a son, Sirius. At three months old, he’s already walking and talking, prompting Ulysse and Nova to fear for their safety. They escape by taking the place of the human test subjects in a space flight experiment — because all humans look alike, so the apes can’t tell the difference. Ulysse programs the ship back to Earth.
As they fly over Paris, the Eiffel Tower and City Airport look pretty much the same as ever, but upon landing, they’re greeted by a gorilla field officer in a Jeep.
In the bookend, we return to the framing story, learning that Jinn and Phylllis are actually chimpanzees who dismiss Ulysse’s story out of hand as complete fantasy. Humans who can speak and act as civilized members of society? It’s unthinkable!
As anyone who has seen the films can tell, the building blocks of what came to be on the screen are all here. In the telling of it all, the book feels much older than it is. Maybe it’s the translation, maybe it’s just written like this, it’s hard to tell for sure. But my first thought upon reading it is that it feels like it’s very much in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, albeit with more advanced technology.
My biggest gripe with this is that the narrator keeps referring to the various types of apes as monkeys. That maybe a result of the original, maybe it’s the translation. I don’t really know, but it’s a bit frustrating. I suppose that was a non-issue for casual readers in 1963.
As with the best science fiction, there’s a heavy dose of social commentary to be had here. The central theme, of course, is cruelty and having what humans dish out to others being repaid in kind. Ah, karma… *sigh* But there is another theme, that of evolution. And in what I can only mark as one of the more brilliant aspects of this novel, it argues, going with the idea that apes and humans both learn through imitation, that art — and specifically literature — marks out a civilization. But the argument takes it one further. Writers, take note, because this hits you where you live. The book argues that one or two original novels are produced every year, and all others that are produced any given year are imitations of other original works. Ergo, the author says, it stands to reason that if an ape can string words together and, through “aping,” accidentally reproduce Shakespeare, that’s no more unlikely than what the majority of writers on the planet are doing in any age. *mic drop* That, people, is some bold declaration. And it’s actually rather humbling to think about the potential truth of it too. The train of thought is that this same idea is how the apes evolved to become expert in all of the human arts, thus overtaking civilization. So I put it to you, great writers and artisans of the world… are you up to the challenge of saving our civilization by living up to your human potential? We’re counting on you! I know… I need to figure out my great masterwork too. This commentary really does drive the point home a little too well.
It’s a fun little book, all in all. Not quite what I expected, even knowing how the story unfolds, but certainly not a disappointment either. Probably because I enjoy older novels like this. It’ll never stand alone for me, but it most certainly enhanced my appreciation for the original film and its legacy, which is really the entire point of what I was hoping to achieve.