Sunday, September 8, 2013

Planet of the Apes - Pierre Boulle

Planet of the Apes by French author Pierre Boulle is one of those rare works in science fiction to come from outside the anglophone sphere and achieve a high level of success. The noevel was first published 1963 as La Planète des singe. There are English language editions with the title Monkey Planet as well. Whoever came up with that title should be introduced to Terry Pratchett's librarian. Planet of the Apes has spawned a move franchise that currently consists of seven movies, with an eight, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, scheduled for the summer of 2014. The moves take he story way beyond the scope of what Boulle envisioned of course, and probably had more of an impact than the book itself. I've seen a few of them and that was enough to spark my interest in the novel. I ended up with mixed feelings about his book. It has some interesting aspects but it is also quite pulpish, especially in character development.

Some time in the far future, a couple sailing the stars at their leisure, discover an interstellar message in a botte. The message contained within, tells the tale of an early interstellar traveler by the name of Ulysse Mérou, who describers his adventures on a planet circling the start Betelgeuse. His tale is one of a society where the roles between man and the great apes have been reversed. Mankind's condition is reduced to that of a mere animal while a society composed of Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutan rules the planet. Without means to leave the planet and captured by the apes, Mérou sees himself put to the task of convincing the apes of his intelligence.

Despite being set more than five centuries in the future from the time it was written, Mérou and  his party have a very colonial outlook on life. They have a hard time imagining any other form of intelligent life besides humanity. There is also a clear element of racism present in the early scenes where the party first meets specimens of the native human population. Disbelieve that humans, and apparently Caucasians ones at that, could be reduced to less than the most primitive tribe on earth. Ironically, Mérou does experience the hunt on them that follows as shocking, while at the same time acknowledging that such hunt occur on earth and that the humans on the planet are no more than animals. It one of the many ethically questionable positions he finds himself in.

Equally problematic for instance, is Mérou's relationship with Nova, one of the native women he encounters shortly after landing. Her physical beauty and complete lack of intelligence are described in detail in the early chapters of the book. Mérou feels somewhat guilty about but nevertheless takes her as a mate. His treatment of her is quite often contemptible and not until she turns out to be pregnant, does he begin to appreciate her as a human being.

Mérou is caught between his own prejudice and the treatment he receives as a prisoner of the apes. The put him through a whole series of tests he recognizes as Pavlov's experiments. On the one hand he despises his fellow captives who perform the tricks exactly as predicted, on the other he feels the pull to conform. Sometimes he is absurdly grateful for what little attention he receives from his captors. More often he is thinking about ways to convince his captors of his intelligence so he can regain his freedom. His treatment is one of the ways in which Boulle holds us a mirror. The parallel with animal tests is clear and the author is not afraid to rub that in.

Racism and paranoia are not limited human society, the apes suffer from it too. Boulle shows us a society that is split up in three distinct layers. The Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutan each have their own strengths and their roles in society are defined by it. Mérou has most contact with the Chimpanzees. They are the most intellectual and curious of the three, many of them working in scientific positions. Watching over them are the dogmatic and socially conservative Orangutan. Official science as the Chimpanzees refer to their jobs. Mérou  comes to share their distaste for them over the course of the novel. The militaristic Gorillas are mostly put into jobs that require little intellect and great bodily strength. The three species may superficially be at peace, there is a clear tension between them.

As a science fiction novel, I'm not particularly impressed with the science part. There is a lot of dodgy comments on evolution and the eventual origin of simian society seems to assume that we can bring primates up to the level of human intelligence. They may be our closest relatives, biologically there are still differences. Not only between humans and the great apes but also between the three species of ape in the book. What is depicted in the book is unlikely in the extreme, if not outright impossible. In one scene the native woman Nova, who would go on the be Mérou's mate, strangles a tame chimpanzee. I seriously suggest you don't try that at home.

Boulle didn't set out to write a science fiction novel with the emphasis on science however, so to a point it is excusable. The social commentary doesn't work that well either however. Perhaps if he'd taken a more satirical approach. On that level it doesn't work either. I feel that for the satirical aspect of the novel to have worked, he would have had to exaggerate a bit more. As it is, the novel is terribly blunt in making its point. Most of the time I spent reading it I was annoyed with the characters for something or other.

I can see why Planet of the Apes became a classic but truth be told, I don't really think it merits that status. It is an interesting read in a way though. The Hollywood adaptation of it differs considerably from the original (although the 2001 remake is closer to the book). In fact, the story is changed to such an extent that the end of the novel will come as a surprise to readers who are only familiar with the classic movies. I thought the difference between the novel and he movie adaptation was probably the most interesting aspect of this read. It almost begs the question what a French movie adaptation would look like.

Book Details
Title: Planet of the Apes
Author: Pierre Boulle
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 268
Year: 2001
Language: English
Translation: Xan Fielding
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-44798-2
First published: 1963

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