Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pierre Boulle's "Planet of the Apes" (novel): When man/beast differences disappeared

Quote from the novel titled Planet of the Apes by Pierre BoulleMost of this very interesting satire is essentially a mirror - on some common beliefs about what is human & about our place in the universe. But even without anything intellectual, it would have made a good story.

Weak point of this story is scientific detail - flimsy, often implausible, & sometimes just plain illogical. But I didn't mind. Because fun of the story lies elsewhere.

I cannot really compare it with Hollywood movie of the same name. I saw the movie years back, & in fragments, on TV - what little I recall doesn't quite match the novel.

Story summary.

Novel is structured as a frame-story. Interstellar travel is common.

A couple, Jinn & Phyllis, are floating in space in their photonic-powered yacht on a holiday when they see a bottle floating through space! They pick up the bottle, & it contains a message on many sheets - like old fashioned romantic movies (only movies had shorter messages). The message is a warning to humans - avoid certain planets because they are dangerous. And it tells its author's experiences - the main story.

Professor Antelle, his "disciple" Arthur Levain, & a jounalist Ulysse Merou "who had met the professor as a result of an interview", are on board a starship. Ulysse is the hero of the story, narrator, & also the author of bottle message.

Their target is "the region of space where the super gigantic star Betelgeuse reigns supreme" - 300 light years from earth. Prof Antelle is the "principal organizer of the enterprise - to which he devoted the whole of his enormous fortune; the leader of our expedition, he himself had conceived the spaceship and directed its construction." This is the first human interstellar ship ever. Year is 2500 AD.

Why is it traveling so far rather than something closer? Because ship takes a year to accelerate to "speed of light minus epsilon ... it can approach it to within an infinitesimal degree", & another year to decelerate. Most of the journey is made at near light speed - so time has slowed down drastically for passengers. From passenger's point of view, a journey that lasts 2 years & a couple of minutes, or two years & a couple of hours, is pretty much the same - so why not aim for an interesting star far away?

OK - they reach the destination. It's a huge star - "if its center were placed where the sun's center lies, this monster would extend to within the orbit of Mars"! About 30 AU from this star, they find a habitable planet that is pretty much a copy of earth - third of Betelgeuse's four planets. They dub the planet Soror, put the ship in orbit around it, & go down to surface on one of the 3 "launches" the ship has. All three humans go down, plus their pet Chimpanzee Hector; unmanned ship will stay in orbit.

They observe it's a planet at roughly the same level of development as earth, has many towns that look like home, etc. They land in a jungle.

While exploring on foot, they come to a little river. Get down to bath, & see a nude human girl who "belonged to the white race" there! They will later name her Nova. And she is behaving oddly - as if she doesn't know how to speak.

Some more adventures later, they will discover that humans on this planet are mentally non-sentient animals! Explorers will be attacked by these human-animals, their ship destroyed, weapons thrown away, cloths removed, Hector killed, ... They will end up nude where these humans live - an "encampment where the shelters were not even huts, but nest like constructions like those built by the big apes in our African forests". Our hero, Ulysse, will get soft feelings for Nova.

Soon, they find they are being hunted. Hunters are Gorillas & Chimpanzees, all sentient, at roughly the technology level of Europe, & behave like European hunters. Many humans will be killed - among them the professor's assistant, Arthur. Prof Antelle & Ulysse are captured but separated. Ulysse & Nova will end up caged in the "Institute for Advanced Biological Study"; professor will end up becoming a zoo animal. By the end of the story, Prof would have become a non-sentient animal - past any hope of redemption. Ulysse will eventually escape.

In captivity, the humans are given the kind of training given to laboratory animals. Like reflexively associating a the sounding of a bell with an electric shock. Later, we will also be treated to dissection of humans & some very extreme abuse that is common in animal labs.

Among other things, Ulysse will be forced to copulate with Nova so the lab masters can observe. This union will eventually result in a sentient son, Sirius.

Ulysse will learn that this planet has Gorillas, Chimpanzees & Orangutans as sentient species with roughly the same rights; humans are animals. Orangutans are status conscious drags on society, Gorillas are power hungry go-getters, & Chimpanzees are the brains of the society.

Super-smart behavior of Ulysse is initially taken with surprise by two Gorilla attendants of lab - Zoram & Zanam, the female Chimpanzee researcher - Zira, & their Orangutan boss - Zaius.

Slowly, Ulysse convinces Zira that he is a sentient & an alien there. They grow close, & fall in love - but this love affair is doomed. Attempts of Zira & Ulysse to convince Zaius fail; Zaius has a mental block & doesn't want to hear anything about human sentients.

Ulysse will get redemption with the help of Zira & her fiance Dr Cornelius. Cornelius is a high official in the lab. Plan is, during the forthcoming "annual biological conference", Zaius is planning to display Ulysse as a freak trained by him to do monkey-tricks.

Conference will attract a lot of public & media - aided in part because "rumor began to spread around the town that an absolutely extraordinary man had been discovered". Ulysse will force, during his display, a speech that convinces the media & public of his origins.

He succeeds. Gets out of cage, gets a place to live, etc. Officially, he is assisting Cornelius in his anthropological research.

That is when there is news of a new archaeological find of an over 10,000 year old city somewhere. Cornelius takes Ulysse with him. We will learn that this was actually a human city! And at roughly the same level of development that this planet of apes is now!

Back in labs, Cornelius's people working on dissection of humans have figured a way to make them talk by electrically simulating the subjects' brains. That is where we get the history of humans on this planet.

In these experiments, a woman subject narrates the incidents from that long lost time - from her racial memory!!! Humans were masters, & had employed apes as slaves, servants, & experimental subjects. Somewhere along the line, they lost their drive & apes took over. They chased humans from their homes & cities to jungles. And humans became non-sentient!

Cornelius is badly rattled. No one in this society of apes is prepared to face the discovery. And presence of Ulysse seems to be doing something to other humans in cages in the lab - a recognition of sentience is emerging. Cornelius is even more upset because he sees a chemistry developing between Ulysse & his fiancee. In the meantime, under extreme security, Nova & Ulysse's child is born.

In these circumstance, Ulysse is called to office of Cornelius with Zira. He is told the kind of things to expect soon. He will be killed, or they will "at least remove part of your brain on the pretext of some experiment". Nova will remain an animal & will be separated from other humans in lab. Their son will be sent far away to an Orangutan teacher who will ensure he never grows up sentient. Ulysse must run away, but how? Note that his lander was destroyed earlier.

Ulysse is offered an option. Cornelius has friends in space agency. One of his friends has located our explorer's ship in orbit. And a space launch is coming up, & is scheduled to put a human male, female, & child into orbit - presumably to study the effect of zero-gravity etc on these animals. These subjects will be replaced by Ulysse, Nova, & their child, & the launch vehicle will arrange to have them reach the ship. Locally, a declaration will be made that launch failed, & the humans sent will be replaced with stooges.

OK - so the three spend another two years of ship time traveling back to earth. On earth, 700 years have lapsed. They get down at the town called Orly in France, using the second launch. A vehicle comes to see what has landed, & ouch! Earth is also now a planet of apes!!! The three barely escape.

They are now on a voyage through space, looking for a safe planet!

Near end, we will learn that Jinn & Phyllis are Chimpanzees of earthly origin. And they think someone has joked via this bottle message. Sentient humans, huh!


  1. "Ape is of course the only rational creature, the only one possessing a mind as well as a body. The most materialistic of our scientists recognize the supernatural essence of the simian mind."
  2. "Simius sapiens, forming the three extreme points of evolution: the chimpanzee, the gorilla, and the orangutan."
  3. "Ape's brain ... has developed, is complex and organized, whereas man's has hardly undergone any transformation."
  4. "ape's mind was primarily the result of the fact that he had four agile hands... With only two hands, each with short, clumsy fingers ... man is probably handicapped at birth, incapable of progressing and acquiring a precise knowledge of the universe. Because of this he has never been able to use a tool with any success. Oh, it's possible that he once tried, clumsily. . . . Some curious vestiges have been found."
  5. "our being equipped with four hands is one of the most important factors in our spiritual evolution. It helped us in the first place to climb trees, and thereby conceive the three dimensions of space, whereas man, pegged to the ground by a physical malformation, slumbered on the flat."
  6. "apes alone can have a soul."
  7. About apes taking over human civilization of Soror: "Rational man having had his day, a superior being was bound to succeed him, preserve the essential results of his conquests, and assimilate them during a period of apparent stagnation before soaring up to even greater heights."

Fact sheet.

"Planet of the Apes", novel, review
First published: 1963
Translated by Xan Fielding to English from original French titled "La planète des singes".
Alternative English title: "Monkey Planet"
Rating: A


Anonymous said...


I am writting an essay about "Pierre Boulle explore what we share as human beings" for the book Planet of the apes. I would like to ask if you have any idea that may help,please contact me

Anonymous said...

so they never explained how earth also turned into an ape world

Tinkoo said...

Yes, but to me it sounded like an attempt to make the ending memorable!