1963. The good, the bad and the geeky. Pierre Boulle writes Planet of The Apes.
“There's always some further action to take.” (Pierre Boulle)
1963 is a year that reflects some of the best, the worst and the geekiest humanity has to offer.
On April 16, Pope John Paul XXIII sends out his final encyclical, Pacem in terris (lit. Peace on Earth) to “all men of good will”. The letter urges humanity to resolve conflicts by negotiation, stresses the importance of respecting human rights, and establishes the need for greater equality among nations. As far as the pope is concerned, these are all part of God’s plan and are needed to bring about the peace on Earth that all men desire. The encyclical marks a major shift in the Catholic Church’s position on human rights, and it will later serve as the basis for the Church’s 1965 Declaration of Religious Freedom. However, it is not the only important letter to be written by a Christian leader that year.
Five days later and across the ocean, Martin Luther King Junior pens his “Letter from Birmingham jail”, after being arrested for marching against racism. In this letter, King defends his strategy of nonviolent resistance, and argues that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Segregation laws are unjust “because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality". In King’s view anyone who disobeys these laws, and is willing to be imprisoned to arouse the conscience of the community is expressing the highest respect possible for the rule of law. His words, as well as the Pope’s pleas, do not go unheeded.
President Kennedy is doing his best to make the world a better place, and he is busy formulating policies and negotiating agreements to that effect. These include:
The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union
The Equal Pay Act
The “Report to the American People on Civil Rights”, in which he frames civil rights as a moral issue
The “Ich bin ein Berliner” (lit. I am a Berliner) speech, in which he emphasizes US support for West Germany
And then he is assassinated.
President Kennedy isn’t the only world leader to be killed. There are also several successful coups in Togo, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and South Vietnam (the last one was more than justified). In France, assassins also go after President Charles de Gaulle for giving Algeria its independence – they fail.
World leaders aren’t the only ones to be targeted though. In Australia, serial killer, Eric Edgar Cooke goes on a shooting spree in Perth. In Canada, Quebecois terrorists bomb a recruitment center. In Malaysia, rioters burn down the British Embassy. And in South Vietnam, prior to the coup, the army pours liquid chemicals on Buddhist Protesters.
It’s not all just good and bad though. 1963 also has its fair share of geeky milestones.
The Beatles record their first album – Please Please Me
The BBC airs the first episode of Doctor Who
Walt Disney releases The Sword in The Stone
Pierre Boulle writes Planet of the Apes (the book I am reviewing), and gives birth to a franchise.
“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.” (Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes)
Pierre Boulle (1912 – 1994) was a French novelist, engineer and secret agent who had a talent for combining adventure and psychology into amazing stories.
Before becoming an author, Boulle led a fairly interesting life. From 1936 to 1939 he worked as a technician on British rubber plantations in Malaya. After World War II broke out, he joined the French Army in Indochina. When Germany occupied France, Boulle joined the Free French mission in Singapore, and became a secret agent.
Boulle used his spy skills to help the resistance movements in China, Burma and French Indochina. In 1943, he was captured and subjected to two years of forced labor, until the war ended. Afterwards, he tried resuming his work in the rubber industry, but it didn’t take.
In 1949, the budding author moved back to Paris and began to write. His first novel was The Bridge over The River Kwai (1952). It’s a semi-fictional novel based on the “Death Railway” project that killed roughly 16,000 allied POWs and 100,000 Asian conscripts. The book became an instant global bestseller and made Boulle famous. The instant success, enabled Boulle to continue to write, and this eventually led to arguably his greatest legacy – Planet of The Apes.
“It was an ambitious project, the most ambitious that had ever been conceived on earth.” (Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes)
In 1963, while visiting a zoo, Boulle was astounded by the human-like expressions of the gorillas, and this caused him to ponder the relationship between man and ape. Six months later, he had a new “social fantasy” novel (he rejected the sci-fi label) in which he commented on some of the weaknesses of human nature, and criticized mankind’s over-reliance on technology. It was another instant success.
British author, Xan Fielding translated the book into English. It was published in the United Kingdom as Monkey Planet and in the United States as Planet of the Apes. Shortly afterwards, Boulle’s literary agent, Allain Bernheim, approached American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs and sold him the film rights. Jacobs was looking to do something similar to King Kong and Boulle’s novel fit the bill, surprising the author who considered it to be one of his minor works.
Jacobs hired Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) to write the screenplay, and managed to persuade Charlton Heston (Ben Hur, The Ten commandments) to star in the film. Heston’s star talent convinced 20th Century Fox to take on the film – at a reduced budget. In 1968, the classic Planet of the Apes film was released to the world, giving fans another franchise to follow.
Following the film’s instant success, Fox produced another four more films, CBS produced a live action tv series, and in 1975 FOX and NBC adapted the novel into an animated series. In 2001, the movie was rebooted, and again in 2011 (as a trilogy). There have also been countless book sequels, spinoffs, comic books, toys and merchandise. All of this is thanks to Boulle’s 1963 visit to the zoo.
“This time I felt it was impossible that they could entertain further doubt as to my true condition. Alas, I did not yet know the blindness of orangutans!” (Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes)
The book itself tells the story of a human reporter from Earth who embarks on a journey to visit a planet orbiting the star Betelgeuse: Ulysse Merou (narrator). Merou was invited to join the interstellar expedition by Professor Antelle because he knew how to play chess (and had no family tying him to Earth). The third member of the party is Arthur Levain, a physician. Shortly after they land, they discover the savage naked woman Nova, and eventually her tribe of several hundred naked humans.
The tribe of humans are alarmed at the site of the clothed members of the exhibition and how they walk on two feet, and quickly overwhelm the trio, disarm them, remove their clothing and wreck the shuttle. Once the expedition members are fully naked (and completely harmless), the tribe becomes friendly, although none of the members show any human intelligence. Shortly afterwards, the tribe is attacked by a group of intelligent armed clothed gorillas, and the premise of the novel is now fully revealed.
I liked the concept of the book a lot, but was not a huge fan of it’s execution. Boulle does an excellent job of world building, but the actual storytelling is merely okay – typical for a 1950’s science fiction novel (despite Boulle’s rebranding). The story is intended to serve as a cold commentary on human nature and the various differences between humans and apes. The characters themselves help fulfill that goal admirably, even though they themselves are not all that relatable.
Merou describes the plight of being locked up and treated like an animal. However, there is no real sense that this deeply affects him. It’s a problem that needs to be solved, not a dehumanizing experience. Merou has no real issue with the fact that the apes are hunting, capturing and experimenting on the animal-like humans. As far as he’s concerned, they’re beasts and therefore it totally makes sense to abuse them and experiment on them. The only issue is that he personally is intelligent, and therefore should be treated differently – needless to say, I wasn’t one of his fans.
The apes themselves are divided into three separate tribes: gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. Each tribe represents a different human stereotype. Gorillas are the military commanders capable of managing logistics and administering a planet, but completely uncreative. Orangutans are hidebound scientists who religiously adhere to book knowledge and avoid experimentation. And the chimpanzees are the creative geniuses who discover new knowledge – unsurprisingly, they are also the weakest and least respected of the tribes. These stereotypes make it difficult to empathize with most of the ape characters the book introduces. They are meant to serve as a commentary on a specific type of human, and therefore it is difficult to connect with them individually.
All-in-all, I enjoyed the novel. The world building and exploration are top-notch. The writing style is fresh and interesting, and while I do have issues with the storytelling, it’s not actually a bad story, just average. I am happy to add this novel to my growing list of French science fiction novels exploring the relationship between human and ape (Village in the treetops, You shall know them), and consider it to be a worthy addition to the geekiness of 1963.
Personal update: It took me almost a month to write this review. It was a combination of ending my old job, and starting my new one, but also because my writing itself has now received a lower priority. I now consider my home to be worthy of human habitation, and it’s a good feeling even if I have less time to write.
I still want to write two more reviews. However, they will take some time. I have an article, I need to submit by March 01 (not much time), and that’s the next thing I plan on working on. Afterwards, I’ll resume 1964.