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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Book Twelve

The twelfth book we have read is the 2000 translation of Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, the original 1963 novel that inspired the classic movie starring Charlton Heston.

The book begins with a couple out for a leisure cruise through space, and they come upon a message in a bottle. The manuscript inside is what constitutes the story, and most of the novel. The manuscript has been written by Ulysse Merou, a journalist in the year 2500. He is part of a three-man mission to Alpha Orionis, three hundred light years away from Earth. While the astronauts age two years during their voyage, Earth ages three and a half centuries. In the solar system of their destination, they land on a planet with attributes much like Earth's, which they dub Soror.

If you have never seen the movie, or the remake, the basic premise is that on Soror apes are the "kings of creation," with all of our modern civilization and culture, while humans are speechless animals running around naked in the forest and kept in zoos for amusement. Merou is at pains to prove he is intelligent, and gradually develops a savior complex. At the same time, some chimp scientists are trying to shine light on their civilization's shrouded emergence.

Merou and his spacemates first encounter only humans. Mr. Boulle does a fine job of describing the animalisms of these humanoids, Merou noting they watched as if from "a sort of void, an absence of expression, reminding me of a wretched mad girl I had once known."
Whenever we had discussed, during the voyage, our eventual encounter with living beings, we saw in our mind's eye monstrous, misshapen creatures of a physical aspect very different from ours, but we always implicitly imagined the presence in them of a mind. On the planet Soror reality appeared to be quite the reverse: we had to do with inhabitants resembling us in every way from the physical point of view but who appeared to be completely devoid of the power of reason. This indeed was the meaning of the expression I had found so disturbing in Nova and that I now saw in all the others: a lack of conscious thought; the absence of intelligence.
When the apes appear, their humanisms exactly replicate our own behaviors today.

The novel has a decidedly different tone, and follows a different path, than the movie. Though Merou is initially hunted, in the way men today hunt deer or fox, there is not really a violent antagonism between him and the apes as there is in the movie. Some oppose him, but when he presents his case at the annual biological conference of apes, he achieves the status of a diplomatic emissary, and he is eventually permitted to assist the chimp scientists in their research. He never loses his capacity for speech--precluding one of the movie's best scenes--though there is an initial language barrier between Ape and French that he must overcome. He learns the truth of much ape prehistory by means of an experiment run by the chimps on a human, a sort of electrically induced hypnosis. This leads him to consider the possibility apes had overtaken a human civilization, in a particularly interesting passage that considers imitation in the place of evolution:
Of what is our literature made? Masterpieces? Again, no. But once an original book has been written--and no more than one or two appear in a century--men of letters imitate it, in other words, they copy it so that hundreds of thousands of books are published on exactly the same theme, with slightly different titles and modified phraseology. This should be able to be achieved by apes, who are essentially imitators....
Only when Merou fathers a child is he considered dangerous. He is able to escape the monkey planet by deception with his female companion and their son, and return to Earth. This conclusion also precludes the most powerful scene in the movie, though it does provide the book with a final twist.

The novel contains the basic elements of both the original movie and one of its sequels. It is a quick read, and fits comfortably into the science fiction genre. What kind of impact must it have had when first published? Was the subject shocking? Were the surprises telegraphed? Given our foreknowledge of the movie, we cannot say, and this presented us with the greatest difficulty in enjoying the novel (though well-written within its conventions) and appreciating it for itself.

We give it three (out of five) pipefuls.

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