Cannonball Read V: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
I'm not sure if a spoiler warning is needed here but just in case: here there be spoilers.
Let me first say that I had never seen any of the Planet of the Apes films, except for clips shown in movies or on tv. I pretty much figured I knew this iconic piece of pop culture through osmosis. I had even used some of the lines, but who hasn't? So, with my husband keeping the kids busy, I grabbed the book from my son's room and sank into a hot tub, ready for a quick, light hearted read. I guess I was expecting a novelization of the movie, even though I knew it was the other way around. From the very first pages I was more interested than I was expecting and already enjoying it.
Planet of the Apes starts off with a couple, Jinn and Phyllis, on what sounds like a futuristic Freedom 55 commercial, who find a simple message in a bottle floating in space. After retrieving it, they become engrossed in the story it contains and the book switches to the sender's point of view. We begin the adventure with Ulysse Merou and 2 others, Professor Anatelle and Arthur Levain, aboard a spaceship that travels almost at the speed of light. They have travelled 350 Earth years (2 years "space time") to a nearby star system, under the sun Betelgeuse, that may be capable of life. (Full disclaimer of maturity here: I did say "Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice" in my 10 year old voice in my adult head almost every time it was mentioned in the book.) They discover a planet they name Soror, that appears to be very much like Earth and decide to land there and take a scientific look-see.
After discovering it is safe to breathe, they go for a swim and discover what appears to be a human female. However, she exhibits no human intelligence, only apparent animal like behaviour and quickly kills off their poor little Earth-chimp, Hector. What I thought worked really well for this book is the way we get to experience what Ulysse experiences as it happens,with quick and fairly realistic descriptions and reactions. What I mean is, there wasn't pages and pages of feelings and intense debate over what was happening. It all happens to him, and us, so fast there really isn't time to think of flowery prose or anything. When more of these human-like people appear and capture the newcomers, Ulysse at first takes for granted that they can be approached like people, and is stunned and confused, almost angered, by their animal-ness. But of course, he hopes to see something more in the one he's attracted to, but everything is quickly interrupted by the sounds of an approaching hunting party that causes a frenzied stampede.
When gorillas appear out of the bush, wearing clothes, speaking in a language and doing everything else human-y, Ulysse is shocked. His reaction is a nicer version of what my "the f--?" would have been. He keeps saying to himself, and us the reader, that these are monkeys, monkeys! Wearing clothes, taking pictures, smoking and are obviously the "people" on this planet. He is soon poached along with other men-like animals and we are with him as he describes the simian city. We share his views when he is soon taken to a research facility and caged, left alone with his humiliation, horror and scientific interest. We were with him when he hid from the boys in the bookstore, we were with him when he took the book with the Auryn symbol on the cover. Sorry, I have Sometimer's disease and lose track. But you get my point.
It is in this lab that we are introduced to Zira, a chimpanzee that recognizes the intelligence and difference in this subject, and begins communicating and protecting him. Zira takes Ulysse out in collar and leash and introduces him to her fiancee, Cornelius,another chimpanzee scientist. Together we learn the roles of orangutans, gorillas and chimps and that their civilization, while resembling Earth, is not really as advanced. With the help of Zira and Cornelius, Ulysse learns the language of the planet and plays along as a trained pet, all the while planning a speech to show his is a sentient being at the next meeting of the powers that be. This goes surprisingly well and he is let loose to live among society, although he still causes alarm and suspicion to many.
There is another thread to the plot involving Nova, the girl introduced earlier, and the attempts to get them to mate. I found it kind of funny that although Ulysse states he knows she is not really like him, his guilt and shame isn't enough to stop him from not only sleeping with her but impregnating her. Take that as you will. We also learn that Dr. Anatelle has lost his ever loving mind and is living in a zoo with the other men and women and freaks out when Ulysse tries to communicate with him. He then takes comfort in a young mate. Through Cornelius' discovery at an archaeological dig, and some human experiments, is becomes apparent that Soror's history was ruled by humans and then taken over by apes. After the baby, Sirius, is born and begins to show more earth-human tendencies, it is revealed that Mi Zaius and others feel threatened and plan on exterminating any trace of this human intelligence. Zira and Cornelius find a way to get Ulysse and family back onto the shuttle and they set course for Earth. When he arrives just outside Paris, 700 years after he's left, he discovers whatever event that led to the apes' dominance has happened during his time away, and he high tails it out of there. It is then that he writes his story, and we only know that Ulysse, Nova and Sirius are floating through space looking for help and safety.The only indication of what they found is answered when Jinn and Phyllis dismiss the story as fiction and kiss each other's chimpanzee muzzles.
I have since read other reviews and the book is almost always compared to the movies. It is also usually called simplistic, overly moralistic and preachy. I really liked it though, and found it to be a great little read. I found my usual nit picking and frustration was more out of control when I finally watched the movie the other day with my son. I didn't understand the need to change such simple things and Charlton Heston bugs me (my son told me not to ruin Charlton Heston for him). I was not happy with the unnecessary changes that were made and with the whole tone of the movie. I actually fell into an angry sleep near the middle and woke up when they were going into the mountains. However, I may watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)