Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

1963: Monkey Planet (Boulle, Pierre)

Dry language with a twist of thought (4/5)

Monkey Planet was later named Planet of the Apes to coincide with the release in the cinema. The two titles are of the same book, but the movie named Planet of the Apes is not the same as the book. I'm no general movie aficionado or even a science fiction movie connoisseur, but the 1968 Planet of the Apes film borders on silly and the sequels are just obnoxious. The 2011 reboot of Planet of the Apes adds to the history behind the novel of Monkey Planet... an interesting history only glanced over within the novel but with big implications.

Rear cover synopsis:
"What if monkeys were the master race? Caging your wife, hunting and killing your brothers and sisters for sport? Exhibiting you naked behind a zoo-notice: Homo Pseudo Sapians--stupid but not dangerous--may bite... and generally treating you like the animal you are? Such is the terrifying ordeal of the man in this book. It will startle you into some viciously thought-provoking questions about your place in the world. Believe us?"

Jinn and Phyllis are having a nice cosmic solar sail trip together. Away from their peers and entranced by each other's love, their trip is abruptly disturbed by an oncoming message in a bottle... literally, pieces of paper in a glass bottle sealed by cork and wax. Within the bottle is a story about Ulysse Mérou:

Ulysse is aboard a French spacecraft which leaves earth in the 2500 to undergo a 2-year subjective (350-year Earth time) mission to survey the system of Betelgeuse. Descending and frolicking upon the earth-like planet, the crew discover human inhabitants, named as the day they were born and just as dumb. The human natives abhor the crew's want of clothing, their smiling grins, their staring eyes, and their materialistic shuttle craft. With the craft destroyed, the crew go native with the native humans.

Ulysse and his idiot lover named Nova are captured by marauding gorillas and taken to a laboratory filled with cages. Afraid to reveal his true self, Ulysse begins to willingly exhibit signs of cleverness, which attracts the attention of department head Zira, a chimpanzee. When more intelligence tests are run, Ulysse is the only human smart enough to complete even the simplest of tasks. Eventually, Zira befriends Ulysse and he begins to learn their language, culture, and history. However, not everyone is convinced of the human's intelligence, such are the stubborn minds of the orangutans.

Zira and her finance Cornelius concoct a scheme with Ulysse, where as he is to reveal himself to the scientific community while the stubborn Zaius is up on the dias with him. His intelligence shown to the world of Soror, Ulyssee is able to enjoy life outside of his cage, now clothed like a common ape. But his partner Nova is still in her cage and now pregnant with his child, something which the gorillas and orangutans find very inconvenient.

I would love to have said that I read this book its native language, but I don't understand much French. While written in 1963, the book was translated into English in 1964 by Secker & Warburg. Exactly where the language faultiness lies, in the native French or the translated English, I do not know, but the language feels very dated for 1964 and especially so for 2012. Alas, hullabaloo, and hubbub among the words that often used in sentences such as: "[...] a terrifying hubbabaloo made us start up in alarm." (38) and "Without paying much attention to this hubbub [...]" (46) Then there's the old as time interjection: "Quite the contrary!" (35)

Taken with some proper grammar book sounding sentences which border on archaic, the language has a weird vibe to it, considering that the book is written as a narrative with much excitement always surrounding the protagonist: "We thus reached the region from which the shots had been heard." (40) and "I supported him in his suggestion, which eventually prevailed." (28) The wording is often as formulaic as this, which leads to passages that feel dryly scientific or lacking any sort of reflective emotion on Ulysse's part.

The narrative may be this way (1) because Ulysse's professional demeanor, as his career is as a journalist; the objective truth simply laid onto the pages for a fictional account. (2) It may be partly because of a pet notion I've been pondering since the completion of the book: it was written by a orangutan as a piece of fiction, where the story is a rehashed fictional piece but lacks the emotional narration which defines literary creativity, something which orangutans in The Monkey Planet have a difficult time mustering up.

With the pet theory behind, there are other subversions perpetrated by the author when it comes to the semi-predictable conclusion. I think Pierre Boulle was clever enough to be able to pen a seemingly simple book about (1) the simian atrocities to man in light of human atrocities to monkeys, (2) awareness of the diversity of what define as intelligence, or (3) self-imposed limitations on our nature of trust, forgiveness, and justice. If this were the case, then this passage would be the central message: "Ah, what matters this horrid material exterior! It is her soul [Zira's] that communes with mine [Ulysse's]." (169)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read a review of an old/archaic translation of a great novel, thanks. I'm reminded of the original English translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I believe made some edits where Verne was criticising Britain and the Empire.

    I think Planet of the Apes is one of those where the book and the (Heston) film are equally good, without being identical.