Celebrating WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES with Novels about Humanoid Monkeys

Maurice bonds with a stupid human over Charles Burns’ Black Hole.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens today. Upon the conclusion of the latest (and best) iteration of the blockbuster sci-fi franchise, let’s take a look back on its debut.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out in August of 2011, on the heels of two of the most devastating nonfiction chimpanzee narratives in American history. The year before, the NPR show Radiolab aired an hour-long documentary about Lucy, a baby chimpanzee raised by an Oklahoma psychiatrist as a part of his family, expelled upon her difficult adolescence, and eventually banished to Gambia, where she died alone and broken. Project Nim, a documentary film released just a month before Rise, chronicled the equally sad life of Nim Chimpsky—also raised a human child—who became the subject of a Columbia University research study on language acquisition and, eventually, a lab chimp injected with pharmaceuticals under sedation.

In addition to language, these animals had genuine attachments to the people who raised them. (Lucy died at the hands of a poacher, whom she approached because she missed human company! Nim signed “hug” as he was prodded with needles in his cage!) Their stories are savagely heartbreaking, testaments to the cruelty and indifference of man.

What a glorious relief, then, when Caesar came onto the scene. The tiny chimp, raised by a sympathetic scientist (played by James Franco in one of the actor’s few tolerable roles), follows Nim’s trajectory at first: human child, then lab chimp, then resident of a substandard ape rehab facility. But when a cruel orderly pushes him around one too many times, Caesar breaks with tradition, incites a rebellion, and bellows his first word: NO.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is arguably the best Hollywood film of the past decade. Is it a socialist parable of workers triumphing over greedy capitalists? A CGI retelling of Julius Caesar? Search me! I’m just thrilled when monkeys beat up jerks. The second film wasn’t quite as good, but it did have lots of apes with machine guns riding horses, which is extremely cool.

To celebrate War for the Planet of the Apes, I bring you eight novels with sentient, sapient apes, linked to their excerpted Booklist reviews. If none are at hand, read Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” online for free, or watch Charlie Kaufman’s criminally underrated Human Nature.



 Ape House, by Sara Gruen

Gruen’s fourth ensnaring tale features our close relatives, bonobos—exceptionally intelligent and casually sensual great apes. When we first meet the mischievous Bonzi, Sam, Mbongo, Makena, Lola, and Jelani, they are happily ensconced in a cheerful research facility where they request their favorite foods, romp, use computers, watch movies, and converse with humans using American Sign Language. Scientist Isabel considers the bonobos her family and would do anything for them, even after she is nearly killed when the lab is bombed. The fate of the bonobos is a brilliantly satirical surprise.




A Beautiful Truth, by Colin McAdam

The lives of humans and apes become intimately intertwined in this strangely captivating third novel from Canadian author McAdam. When Walt and Judy, a wealthy young couple, discover they are unable to have children, Walt uses his connections to adopt an orphaned Sierra Leone chimpanzee named Looee. Showering Looee with toys and devotion as he grows from diapers to adolescence, the pair ultimately raises a creature whose temperament is an uneasy mix of beast and man. After Looee explodes in a rare bout of rage, maiming Judy and a family friend, he is sent away for good to a primate-research facility in Florida and forced to make a traumatic adjustment to living among apes more adapted to their own company than to humans.


 The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale

In this account by a chimpanzee who ascends the evolutionary ladder, first-time novelist Hale explores what it means to be human. Nine years into captivity after committing a murder, Bruno—24 years old, hairless, with his spine straightened by bipedal standing, and his surgically fashioned, humanoid nose—dictates his memoirs, having become proficient at speech, reading, and visual arts.  With its exuberantly detailed sex between species and its concept that human cognizance of death leads to superstition and religion, this novel is likely to offend some readers, while others will find it holds a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind.



 Great Apes, by Will Self

Simon Dykes is a successful London painter who arrives at a point where he ponders the futility of life: he’s in the throes of serious angst, particularly his corporeal self is weighing him down. His latest apocalyptic paintings are disturbing and reflect his narcissistic fixation on the body. So he decides to forgo drugs on the fateful evening that he is to meet his lady, the lovely Sarah Peasenhulme, and the rest of their clique; but then the evening assumes its own momentum and drugs flow bountifully. After a night of halting lovemaking, Simon awakens to find himself in bed with an ape, a chimpanzee. Soon he discovers he is in a world dominated by chimpanzees.



Lucy, by Laurence Gonzales

Jenny Lowe is studying bonobos in the Congo rain forest, as is Donald Stone, until the brutal civil war reaches their area. Jenny flees with Stone’s now orphaned 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, whose preternaturally keen senses keep them safe. Once they reach Chicago, however, Jenny must protect and guide jungle-raised Lucy, whose shock over the clamor and material abundance of American life makes for shrewd social critique. But Gonzales is just getting started. It turns out that Lucy’s incredible physical and intellectual powers are due to her unique heritage: she is half human and half bonobo. Forced to go public, Lucy becomes an instant and endangered celebrity, accruing marriage proposals and death threats. Gonzales raises profound questions about identity, family, animal and human rights.


The Monkey Bible, by Mark Laxer

Laxer creates a half-human, half-ape protagonist, Emmanuel, a religious college freshman who is devastated when he discovers his engineered genetic makeup. Nothing in the Bible suggests that such a creature as he can be a Christian. Determined to help him escape his “genetic and spiritual isolation,” his bold girlfriend, Lucy, decides to write a scientifically correct Bible in which “biology and spirituality intersect,” while the two make their way from Seattle to Senegal to volunteer at a chimp sanctuary. Laxer’s “modern allegory,” while lacking literary finesse, is funny, entertaining, informative, and accessible, a clever teaching story that gently raises crucial questions about religion, science, and how we treat not only apes but all of creation.


My Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

Quinn’s sage, Ishmael, is a wise and altruistic gorilla who sets himself up as a teacher for pupils who “have an earnest desire to save the world.” His sessions with one student are the subject of Quinn’s first novel, and now we meet another, Julie, a plucky 12-year-old. After getting over her initial shock at finding that her teacher is a gorilla, and after Ishmael recovers from his surprise at having a child seek him out, they get down to business, and what a dialogue they have!





 We Are All Completely beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

As a girl in Indiana, Rosemary, Fowler’s breathtakingly droll 22-year-old narrator, felt that she and Fern were not only sisters but also twins. So she was devastated when Fern disappeared. Then her older brother, Lowell, also vanished. Rosemary is now prolonging her college studies in California, unsure of what to make of her life. Enter tempestuous and sexy Harlow, a very dangerous friend who forces Rosemary to confront her past. We then learn that Rosemary’s father is a psychology professor, her mother a nonpracticing scientist, and Fern a chimpanzee. Fowler has outdone herself in this deeply inquisitive, cage-rattling novel.





About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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