Pierre Boulle
La planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) (1963)
Reviewed: 2002-08-12

I'll venture out on a limb: This novel is crap. Maybe it is intended as a parable, but whatever it is the author is trying to tell me, I sure don't get it.

Five hundred years in the future, a genius scientist, his assistant, and a journalist, who is also the narrator, embark on the first interstellar voyage. At relativistic speed, profiting from time dilatation, they travel several hundred light years to the system of the remote red giant star Betelgeuse, where they discover a planet so similar to Earth they christen it Soror. On landing they run into atavistic humans who are hunted by civilized apes. Captured as a wild beast, the protagonist must prove his sentience to the ruling apes.

The story is hopelessly naïve. Three guys just hop onto a space ship, designed by a genius professor of course, travel hundreds of light years without giving much thought to the fact that they will only return after centuries of relative time, and parade around on a strange planet like tourists. I mean, this may have seemed plausible at Verne's time, but a century later?

The protagonist, Ulysse Mérou, is a fool. Humans are the crown of creation, apes are lowly beasts. If they had met intelligent tentacle monsters, that would have been fine, but apes? Preposterous. Come on, you idiot, this is a strange planet, face the facts! I would have been preoccupied with figuring out how a different planet came to be populated by primate species so similar to their terrestrial counterparts. Parallel evolution doesn't cut it. But this mystery never comes to the mind of the narrator and we're forced to just accept the absurdity. And of course there are real anatomical differences that account for the fact that humans behave as humans and apes behave as apes on Earth. On Soror, we're told, the only difference are the exchanged roles. Primatologists will have a heart attack.

The main shocker is supposed to be the revelation that apes actually succeeded humans as the top species on Soror. Apart from being intrinsically implausible as depicted, where's the problem? Obviously humanity will evolve or perish. The whole book is steeped in outdated mindsets, and I can't tell whether the author tries to mock them or just considers them normal.

Hadn't it been for the well-known 1968 movie version, nowadays widely disparaged, this novel probably would have remained as obscure as it deserves to be. The literary crowd may like it for their incomprehensible reasons, but by the measure of genre fiction and seen from forty years later, it is an utter failure.

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