Review Blog

Aug 23 2011

Planet of the apes by Pierre Boulle

cover image

Vintage, 2011 (originally published 1963). ISBN 9780099529040.
(Age 15+) Ulysse Merou is a journalist who accompanies the brilliant scientist Professor Antille on an inter-galactic journey to a planet called Soror. Conveniently but necessarily this new world has an atmosphere and environment which is almost identical to Earth's. The travellers attain a speed near that of light, enabling both the passage of unimaginable distances and the crossing of hundreds of years in comparative time.
Merou and his party naturally seek contact when they discover the planet's humanoid population. The reader learns that the humans are completely backward, with no obvious intellectual capacity, verbal communication or understanding of objects such as tools or even clothing. Whilst this tentative encounter is taking place, a highly organised operation to drive the people from the forest is undertaken by gorillas who enjoy shooting them for sport but who are also charged with collecting specimens for scientific research. The reader comprehends that Soror is controlled by gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees who are intellectually and technologically developed.
The continuing narrative focuses on Merou as he struggles to survive captivity as a scientific subject and the story gains significant momentum and depth as he demonstrates his superior cerebral capacity to the chimpanzee researchers.
This story is compelling and enjoyable but its most valuable feature is a marvellous philosophical examination of the treatment and abuse of other species for science. It was curious to feel indignant and even appalled at the treatment of humans by monkeys who are cast as unfeeling and even cruel, but then be reminded that this is merely a mirror of our own attitudes towards 'lesser species'.
The academic consideration of the evolution of apes against the regression of man and a thought provoking analysis of learning versus imitation is a strong theme within the tale. So engaging are the philosophical aspects of the story that the reader is forgiving of some very clumsy science fiction constructs and a flimsy literary framework which allows the tale to be introduced and concluded.
Published in 1963, this novel possibly compares poorly against modern science fiction which has benefited from five decades of staggering technological development. Together with true science, today's authors may also draw upon a wealth of science fiction imagination which has gone before.
This is still a wonderful book however and readers 15 and older will cope with the complexities posed by the theme and peculiarities from translation.
Rob Welsh

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