Book 34 on my list is Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle. I really liked this novel and definitely recommend it to everyone as an integral part of the sci-fi canon. After all, this book has spawned multiple movies, novels, and graphic novels expanding the story world. Everyone has heard of Planet of the Apes.
So let’s get right to it.
Plot & Narration
Like other science fiction novels, such as Frankenstein, Planet of the Apes is a story within a story. A couple are vacationing in what is described as a small solar sail-type ship, just floating around in space at their leisure, when they see a message in a bottle outside. They manage to capture the bottle and free it of its contents, a paper manuscript.
“I am confiding this 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!…”
And so begins Planet of the Apes, as detailed by the main character, Ulysse Mérou.
Ulysse and his scientific companions embark on an interstellar mission to another star system, whereupon they discover an Earth-like planet and decide to check it out. This planet, it turns out, is ruled by apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans – while the humans of the planet are feral animals most often used as slaves or for scientific experimentation.
Ulysse himself gets captured and taken to a scientific facility where he is subjected to all sorts of behavioural experiments, hardly able to believe what is happening to him. Thankfully, he is able to make his intelligence known to the one of the head chimpanzee scientists working with him, Zira, and they make plans for his escape.
I won’t spoil the ending, because this is definitely a good read, but I will say it’s not the ending of the 1968 Charleton Heston film.
One of the main themes of Planet of the Apes, in my estimation, is that of animal experimentation.
When Ulysse is first captured on the planet Soror, he is kept in a cage in a room with many other feral humans in a scientific facility. Every day, or every few days, Zira and a couple of gorilla orderlies come to facilitate some behavioural experiments on the humans, testing their intelligence and capacity for learning. It is through these that Ulysse is able to show that he’s extremely intelligent, unlike his captured comrades, and start endearing Zira towards him.
Later, once Ulysse has successfully shown he’s an intelligent human and is freed from his cage, he is allowed to visit another section of the facility, where the chimpanzees perform more invasive experiments on humans.
He passes by one man in a cage who has a bowl of food in front of him, but will not eat. His guide, a chimpanzee named Helius, explains the reason:
“This boy is famished, he has not eaten for twenty-four hours. Yet he does not react when confronted with his favourite food. This is the result of a partial ablation of the frontal brain, which was performed on him some months ago. Since then he has been continuously in this state and has to be fed by force.”
“‘This other one here,’ said the director with a wink, ‘was once a remarkable subject. We had succeeded in training him to an astonishing degree. He answered to his name and…obeyed simple orders. He had solved fairly complicated problems and learned how to use rudimentary tools. Today he has forgotten all his education…He has become the stupidest of all our men – as a result of a particularly difficult operation: extraction of the temporal lobules.'”
Then Ulysse sees an experiment in action, in which electrodes attached to an anaesthetized young girl cause her to shake and convulse. The horror becomes too much for him. Another scientist, Cornelius, attempts to placate him:
“‘I admit these experiments are rather bloodcurdling when you’re not used to them. But you must bear in mind that thanks to them our medicine and surgery have made enormous progress in the last quarter of a century.’
This argument did not convince me, any more than the memory I had of the same treatment applied to chimpanzees in a laboratory on Earth.”
I find this section of the novel particularly fascinating because this is of course an issue that we still deal with today. I’m not sure how most people in the scientific community feel about animal experimentation, though I know that some scientists feel it’s vitally important. However, our cultural tide seems to be shifting towards no animal testing, at least in the area of makeup and cosmetics. Perhaps this will one day translate to academia and scientific research as well.
Animal testing has never sat right with me, and I do my best to purchase, for example, cruelty-free makeup. If you’re interested, you can check out the website crueltyfreekitty.com, which has a list of more than 900 skin care and cosmetics brands out there and a breakdown of whether they test on animals or not.
It seems to me, in 2022, when we can make self-driving cars and rocket ships, that there’s no reason to test anything on animals anymore. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’d be surprised if I were.
Of course, the great irony for Ulysse is that it’s only because of these experiments that the chimpanzees are able to find out the truth about the planet Soror and its history, which ultimately leads to Ulysse being able to escape and go home.
Evolution & Destruction
Of course, another interesting theme in Planet of the Apes is that of evolution. On the planet Soror, chimpanzees, apes, and gorillas were able to evolve to become extremely intelligent beings, capable of language, rational thought, and all manner of scientific inquiry, just as humans evolved on the planet Earth.
It’s hard to say, of course, if Boulle was commenting on the seemingly random nature of evolution or if he just thought super intelligent evolved apes and feral humans would make for a fun story.
Either way, though, this idea of evolution also leads to the theme of destruction, which I didn’t even think about until I read this 2014 BBC article about Pierre Boulle and the difference between the book and the movie.
“It is a big difference. In the film there is this sense of human responsibility. It is man that has led to the destruction of the planet,” says Clement Pieyre, who catalogued Boulle’s manuscripts at the French National Library. “But the book is more a reflection on how all civilisations are doomed to die. There has been no human fault. It is just that the return to savagery will come about anyway. Everything perishes,” he says.
This is a bit of a spoiler for the book, but I still highly recommend it to everyone! 😛 That aside, this is a great point about the overarching storyline. You can’t have evolution without destruction. All things must come to an end. Nothing can last forever.
And to quickly go back to the animal experimentation point, I wonder if Boulle was inspired to include the capture of Ulysse in the book because apparently he himself was captured in Hanoi and spent two years doing hard labour. The BBC article mentions that as well.
“The experience was seminal for Boulle,” says Loriot. “When he came to Indochina he thought he was on the good side. But then a Frenchman arrested him and said, “No you are not.” It drove home a point about the relativity of good and evil, which is the theme of all his works. What is good is good only in a certain context. Not necessarily universally.”
Another interesting theme, though it’s only mentioned at the start of the story when Ulysse and his travelling companions are on their way to the new star system, is that of time dilation. I just thought it was interesting that Boulle included a hard science description of their interstellar journey.
In the following passages, Professor Antelle is describing to Ulysse how they’ll be able to reach the new star system in just two years:
“What you must also realize is that while we are moving at this speed, our time diverges perceptibly from time on Earth, the divergence being greater the faster we move. At this very moment, since we started this conversation, we have lived several minutes, which correspond to a passage of several months on our planet. At top speed, time will almost stand still for us, but of course we shall not be aware of this. A few seconds for you and me, a few heartbeats, will coincide with a passage of several years on Earth.”
“…to reach the speed at which time almost stands still, with an acceleration acceptable to our organisms, we need about a year. A further year will be necessary to reduce our speed.”
This isn’t a major theme, I just thought it was fun and interesting and wanted to mention it :).
Strengths & Weaknesses
The main strengths of Planet of the Apes are the interesting, unique, and fast-paced plot, of course, and also the character development. The story moves at a good pace, unlike many other stories from this period of science fiction, and I finished this novel really quickly because I wanted to find out how it would end.
As for the character development, when he’s first captured, Ulysse is horrified at his situation and can’t understand the ape language. As the story progresses, he starts to learn their language and becomes really good friends with Zira and Cornelius, who help him to escape. He even becomes quite fond of them. The entire experience certainly changes Ulysse as a man.
I’m not sure what I would say as a weakness for this novel. Overall I really liked it. I liked the pacing. I liked the story. I think it’s well structured and well written. It’s easily one of the best books from my list that I’ve read so far!
So there you have it. I highly recommend Planet of the Apes for anyone interested in reading the novel that started it all. It’s not too long of a book, it’s a good page turner, and it’s definitely earned its place in the sci-fi canon.
Boulle, Pierre. Planet of the Apes. New York, Del Ray Books, 1963. English Translation.
Author: Pierre Boulle
Publisher: Editions Rene Julliard, Paris