Planet of the Apes

Cover to the 1966 Penguin edition |

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
Translated from the French by Xan Fielding
Vanguard Press, 1963
Price I paid: none

“I am confiding the manuscript to space, not with the intention of saving myself, but to help, perhaps, to avert the appalling scourge that is menacing the human race. Lord have pity on us!”

With these words, Pierre Boulle hurtles the reader onto the Planet of the Apes. In this simian world, civilization is turned upside down: apes are men and men are apes; apes rule and men run wild; apes think, speak, produce, wear clothes, and men are speechless, naked, exhibited at fairs, used for biological research. On the planet of the apes, man, having reached the apotheosis of his genius, has become inert.

To this planet come a journalist and a scientist. The scientist is put into a zoo, the journalist into a laboratory. Only the journalist retains the spiritual strength and creative intelligence to try to save himself, to fight the appalling scourge, to remain a man.

Out of this situation, Pierre Boulle has woven a tale as harrowing, bizarre, and meaningful as any in the brilliant roster of this master storyteller. With his customary wit, irony, and disciplined intellect and style, the author of The Bridge Over the River Kwai tells a swiftly moving story dealing with man’s conflicts, and takes the reader into a suspenseful and strangely fascinating orbit.

So up top I have to clarify that the cover image I included for this review isn’t representative of the edition of the book that I read. The 1963 Vanguard hardcover—which appears to be the first English edition?—has a boring black-with-text cover that ain’t nobody cares about. And moreover, I got this copy from the library and it has since had its jacket removed and been completely re-bound with a plain aquamarine one that I do like, but isn’t worth scanning.

So I looked through the list of cover images on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and picked the one that looks the most frikkin’ awesome. I think we can all come together and agree that I made the right choice.

This isn’t the first Pierre Boulle novel I’ve read. Garden on the Moon was very good and got me excited to read more of his work. I decided to read Planet of the Apes because a few weeks ago I was sitting around and rewatched the movie on a whim. Midway through I realized that I had a copy of the book around here somewhere, so after the movie ended I went to look for it.

Couldn’t find it. I’m sure it’ll turn up just as soon as I finish writing this review.

I was on the verge of buying a digital copy when my brain reminded me of these things called public libraries and that I might consider checking there, considering, y’know, that I work at one. So I did and here we are.

This book was great! It was made even more great by the fact that, although I adore the film that it spawned, it was different enough that I was able to stay on my toes. It was almost an entirely new, although still somewhat familiar, experience.

Part of it is that almost all of the names are the same. Cornelius, Zira, Nova, Dr. Zaius, they’re all here. But you know who’s different? The main character! Instead of George Taylor, our main guy is the more French and less subtle Ulysse Mérou.

The guy’s first name is a pretty obvious reference to a particular guy who wandered pretty far away from home and would like to get back, but I’m wondering if Mérou might be a nod to H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau. It would make some sense?

Another thing the novel has that the movie didn’t is a frame story. We begin the novel with a couple of astronauts taking a space vacation in a solar sailship. They’re named Jinn and Phyllis. They discover a message in a bottle floating through space, retrieve it, and start reading. This turns out to be Ulysse’s story of how he and two other guys took a trip from Earth to a planet surrounding the star Betelgeuse. They name it Soror due to its incredible similarity to Earth, although they soon learn that there are major differences!

First off, they run into some humans. They meet Nova first, and Ulysse just can’t stop talking about how hot she is. Even after he learns that she is essentially a mindless animal, he has absolutely no compunctions about sexualizing her, and then, later, actually “mating” with her.

The first half of the book roughly parallels the film. Ulysse is caught by apes after they raid a human encampment. The first apes he meets are gorillas. Unlike the ones Charlton Heston meets, these gorillas are full-on gorillas. I assume the film had to change them into a sort of humanoid hybrid mainly because it would be difficult to film otherwise.

Ulysse is utterly shocked by what he sees. Gorillas wearing clothes! Smoking pipes! Driving cars! It’s a…well, you know.

Soon after come chimpanzees when we meet Zira, and later come the orangutans like Dr. Zaius. Each of the ape species fill certain societal roles, but it’s a matter of preferences rather than any kind of forced segregation.

Ulysse is put in a cage and paired off to mate with Nova, which again, is kind of weird in a lot of ways. Ulysse himself considers her mentally an animal. And yet he’s fine sleeping with her. That’s pretty icky. Nova is not capable of providing consent, right? I think that’s how I would interpret this power dynamic. But she’s still human, and recognizes Ulysse as human, so maybe that’s different…somehow?

I don’t think this was one of the points that Pierre Boulle was trying to make with this book, but it’s still an interesting one that occupies a lot of my brain right now.

Ulysse does not speak the same language that the apes do, so Zira thinks that he’s just making goofy noises in imitation of language. He is finally able to snatch a notebook and pen from her and start drawing Euclidean geometric proofs. He is able to quickly convince her that he is something special, so they learn to communicate with one another.

Ulysse’s relationship with the apes is a lot less adversarial than Taylor’s. He becomes friends with Zira and Cornelius and later presents himself almost obsequiously to the Academy of Science, which rules that Ulysse is indeed a rational being. The film departed from this part of the storyline pretty heavily. Although Dr. Zaius is a character here, and is not on Ulysse’s side, he is not the main villain.

Ulysse is accepted into ape society, and soon joins Cornelius on an expedition to an ancient ruin he’s excavating. It’s even older than ape society, Cornelius thinks, and it shares one of the flimsiest plot elements with the film here. It’s the doll, shaped like a human, wearing clothes, that talks.

Why would that necessarily be such a big deal? Like, humans have nonhuman dolls that wear clothes and talk ALL THE TIME. Why would the apes be so different? It would make perfect sense to have a human doll that talks, especially since the whole point of this book so far has been that the apes have exactly the same behaviours as humans, at least wherever possible.

This bugs maybe more than it ought. But it makes me think that in the world of Planet of the Apes, someone might look at, I dunno, a Babar book and decide that it is incontrovertible evidence of an elephant society on Earth at some point. A hell of a colonialist one, too.

Anyway, this doll is evidence that there was once a human society on this planet that was either destroyed or declined, whereafter apes took over.

But more kinda flimsy proof comes later. Ulysse meets a chimpanzee who performs brain experiments on captured humans. This scientist, Helius, has discovered more evidence that humans were once intelligent. He has shocked a particular portion of a human woman’s brain, which has caused her not only to speak, but has somehow unlocked some kind of racial memory?

Ugh, what? Where did that come from? It feels really cheap. To be fair, nothing else has indicated that this book is supposed to be hard science fiction. It’s mostly satirical. But this just didn’t sit right with me. It came from nowhere.

The woman recounts racial memories that indicate that once there were indeed intelligent humans on this planet, and that they trained apes to take over certain duties. Apes got smarter, humans got dumber, and so on for some thousands of years.

It’s not discoveries like these that put Ulysse in danger, but rather the fact that he has impregnated Nova with a child that might well be as intelligent as he is. The orangutans, who are the conservative segment of society, view this as a potential threat, so Zira and Cornelius figure out a way to get the family away from Soror so that they can survive.

In this narrative, the spaceship didn’t crash land on the planet. It’s still happily in orbit. The landing vehicle was destroyed, but Ulysse’s chimpanzee pals have a different plan. Ape society is just beginning its own space age, launching the occasional satellite with, you guessed it, humans as the test animals. Ulysse, Nova, and baby Sirius are sent up, where they rendezvous with the ship and make their way back to Earth.

Yep, that’s right. This time around, it was not Earth all along! That particular twist was the invention of the fella who wrote the first draft of the film’s script. A fella pretty well known for his twist endings, you might have heard of him, a certain Mr. Rod Serling.

The novel has a twist all its own, though! And for that I’m grateful. See, this whole situation has taken place over the course of a couple of years for Ulysse, but time dilation is very much a thing and his ship gets very close to the speed of light. I believe the trip back to Earth takes about 700 years, objective time, which means that Ulysse has been away from Earth for twice that long.

He and the family show up. They land their ship right smack in Paris. The Eiffel tower is still there and everything. They are met by curious onlookers and government officials. A jeep drives up to their ship…and a gorilla gets out.


That’s not all, though! Boulle decided to pull a DOUBLE TWIST. Right after Ulysse and family meet this Earth gorilla, we cut back to the frame story, where our old pals Jinn and Phyllis finish reading this account. They scoff at the idea that a human could possibly write such a thing and decide that it is a probably a practical joke. They are, after all, chimpanzees!

I’m not even sure that double twist was necessary, but whatever, it was fine.

This was certainly an interesting novel, and it had a lot going on. The movie’s main subtext was the Cold War, with a good splash of evolution vs. creationism thrown in. The book had more going on. Boulle seemed quite concerned, for instance, with animal rights. Or so it seemed to me? The humans are treated quite poorly by the apes, and Ulysse talks about how shocking and degrading it is, but it’s not any worse than the way humans treat things that we consider mindless animals.

But I don’t think that’s the main theme of this book. Or rather, it’s one of many points that Boulle seemed to be trying to make. Another big thing is this idea that, for some reason, humans will invariably give up their own powers of thinking to something else, regardless of their planet? That we will become so lazy that the apes take over, as a sort of universal constant?

Is this some kind of Ape Marxism? First the capitalists meet resistance from the workers of their own countries, so they outsource, and then they meet resistance from the international workers, so they make apes do it, and then the apes take over the world. It’s a historical inevitability, easily interpolated from Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, monkeys.

I know that apes and monkeys are a different thing! Don’t @ me. But apparently, the French word singe can mean either? And as a result, the first English translation of this to hit shelves in England was called Monkey Planet. Imagine for a moment the alternate timeline where that’s the title that stuck. I feel safe in guessing that it would not have turned into a 9+ movie franchise with that title.

The book lacked a lot of the really memorable moments from the movie that most people remember—damn dirty apes, it’s a madhouse, you blew it up—but it does still have the moment where our main character goes to kiss Zira, who responds that he’s just so unattractive.

I really wish that I could read French fluently so that I could tell you whether Xan Fielding’s translation really got the right. I mean, it was great and it worked really well. Unlike the other Boulle book I’ve read, also translated by Fielding, the language of Planet of the Apes was very straightforward, almost terse. Garden on the Moon was more lyrical in style. I suppose that’s a point in the favor of both the author and the translator!

All in all, this was a hell of a fun read. I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you’re a fan of the movie. For the record, I’ve only seen the original. For all I know, more elements of this novel made their way into its sequels or remakes, and I hope that if that’s true, you’ll let me know.

3 thoughts on “Planet of the Apes

  1. The idea of chimps as humans strikes me as so dumb that I have successfully avoided the movie and all its sequels. Even the ads/teasers that appear whenever it is going to be on TV irritate me, so this is yet another enjoyable review of a book I will continue to avoid. The chimps as astronauts ending really sounds like a bad episode of the Twilight Zone.

    I did read The Bridge Over the River Kwai years ago and found it well done. The ending was far superior to the movie. (For anyone who has not experienced both, in the book they fail to blow up the bridge.) It was a bit dull, however, something I chalked up to being in translation. It added to my ambition, never realized, to learn French so I could read Jules Verne in the original.

    Thanks for the review of another book I would never have been able to slog through.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Planet of the Apes is one of those books I intend to read, but haven’t, in fear of the movie being so much better. Similar situation to another Chuckie Heston movie: Soylent Green/Make Room! Make Room! I’ll read both one day.

    I know you already used an image and don’t want to flood your review with them, but how could you avoid using an M.Night Shyamalan ‘What A Twist!’ image after your DOUBLE TWIST paragraph. You are a stronger man than me.

    Your mention that man gets lazier and stupider and hands the tasks off to trained apes makes it feel like Idiocracy could be a prequel to Planet of the Apes. Why don’t I already run a Hollywood studio with genius like that?

    Liked by 1 person

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