As a young teenager, I saw the original Planet of the Apes movie one night on television. The final scene, with Charlton Heston screaming on the seashore at the Statue of Liberty, made a tremendous impression on me then and still does so now, ranking right at the top of all-time incredible movie scenes. But I never got round to reading the book, assuming it was just a novelization. The upcoming release of the movie remake has meant the book has been reissued, and at last I'm able to rectify my error. This is a very wry, whimsical and thoughtful novel -- a very French novel -- and it's quite dissimilar to the 1968 movie actioner.
A couple is taking a vacation in deep space, propelled by solar sail. Adrift, with no destination planned, they find a bottle containing a journal of sorts. Of course, the reference is to castaways throwing their messages in bottles into the sea for possible discovery -- a record of what they have seen and done, should the individuals not survive. Boulle is writing in the European tradition of the fantastic tale rather than in the anglophone genre of hard sf: we are not meant to believe this is real.
The journal is unfurled and the couple settles back for the read.
Its tale begins in the year 2500 on Earth. "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." The writer is Ulysse Merou, a journalist, one of three men launched on the first interstellar flight. Like his namesake, he went on a long and tragic quest.
They were to explore the region surrounding Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), some three hundred light years from Earth. Team leader Professor Antelle had made the decision after supervising the project from the beginning. Also along was the professor's disciple, Arthur Levain, a young physician. After a relatively smooth two-year journey they were close to the red sun Betelgeuse.
The professor quickly finds four planets in orbit around the sun, one of which seems to be relatively Earthlike. With the mothership remaining in orbit, the three adventurers go down on a launch to the surface, along with their pet monkey, Hector. During the landing sequence their flight takes them over a small town -- the first indication they've had that the world is inhabited.
They land far from the town and go exploring. The planet is virtually identical to Earth in almost every respect, and they decide it should be named Soror. They encounter a young and very lovely naked woman, but it quickly becomes clear that she is, despite her human appearance, merely an animal. Ulysse nevertheless feels an attraction for her. Then the group is seized by the woman's tribe -- really, her pack -- and taken to the savages' camp. There they are fed and begin to adjust to life as prisoners, while plotting escape. Ulysse decides to name the woman Nova, and begins to try to teach her a few things -- such as his name.
The teaching is interrupted when the pack is assailed by gorillas who walk, talk, ride horses, and act like Englishmen on a hunt. These gorillas round up all the pack's survivors and take them to town.
There begins a rude indoctrination, as Ulysse is forced to confront a world where mankind is not the dominant species. This is a world where humans are savages -- less than that, animals subject to extermination or experimentation. Ulysse must reappraise his own notions of society and civilization at the same time as he's becoming the leader of the caged humans -- he being the only one that can talk and think.
How the forthcoming movie matches up to this book I have no idea. But the book certainly differs radically from that first movie version. Profound and disturbing, it deliberately leaves unanswered its fundamental question: what constitutes a civilization, and have we, as we so often assume, reached the zenith?
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© Kevin Tipple 4 August 2001