Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Andrew E. C. Gaska, Christian Berntsen, Erik Matthews and Rich Handley
I waited a long time for this book. I was thrilled to hear the announcement when this was still in the working stages. We were teased as some of the interior art was released as the writing was still ongoing. Then there was a 2009 San Diego Comic-Con booth promoting it. But the following year Comic-Con came and went and still no book. Then, there was talk of a change in publisher. In my darkest moments I began to suspect that this was too ambitious a project and that I was never going to see the product. And that was all the more frustrating because the released art was not only so good, but gave us glimpses of what promised to be a very interesting story.
I should warn readers that this book expands on the movie version of the original Planet of the Apes (1968), and some elements from its two first sequels Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). While readers unfamiliar with any of the movies would probably still enjoy the book as enough of the background is provided within, it really is aimed at filling in off screen parts of the story. I hesitate to state that only POTA fans can enjoy the book, but familiarity with the subject matter really does help. So if you plan to read the book (or even this very review) but have not seen the movies, I would encourage you to see them first. And really, there is no excuse for not having watched at least Planet of the Apes as it is a science fiction classic. You will not be disappointed.
Before I begin to delve into a review of the story, I simply must describe the physical book itself. To say that it is a lavish specimen is an understatement. I can honestly say that no expense was spared in putting this together and there are so many elements in the packaging itself that I have to take a few moments to point them out. We start with the cover jacket featuring a fantastic brightly colored painting by Jim Steranko. Already we are teased with apes, humans and mutants that hints at the contents. Remove the dust jacket and the hardcover is an ape glyph embossed faux leather design that would feel right at home on Dr. Zauis’ shelves. Open the cover and the jacket interior sports a fantastic blueprint of the ANSA Icarus (or Liberty 1 as it is documented for those that adhere to the name since given by Fox in the Blu-Ray release). Inside we find more than 40 interspersed lavish painted artworks, many of which are two page spreads, that depict the events in the story. Even with all those paintings, each chapter also has a small art illustration on their starting page. A lot of artistic work went into the making of this book. This is one reason that this book was marketed as much along the lines of a graphic novel as a pure text book. My one minor quibble with the presentation was the choice of glossy pages which sometimes made reading a bit tough. But a small price to pay to get those great illustrations.
Now onto the novel itself. All we really knew from the previews was that it was Landon’s story from the original 1968 movie, and that while there would be some apes we knew, there would be other new characters as well that would figure prominently. It begins with a rehash of the events of the beginning sequence in the movie within the ship leading up to the crash landing. A lot of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the movie and POTA aficionados should be able to recite the dialogue passages from memory. At least I did. After the crash, the focus is clearly on Landon during the desert trek, understandably as he is the primary character from this point on. In essence the novel depicts the same story in the movie but from Landon’s point of view, whereas the movie was Taylor’s. It gets a bit outlandish with Landon seeing illusions and hallucinations, something only touched upon briefly in the movie, but it also doesn’t quite gel with the Landon we know from the movie. While there is a definite rivalry between Taylor and Landon in the movie, it is ratcheted up significantly here. It is also at this point that we learn the first major new point not even hinted at in the movie, that there was a supposed prior love triangle between Landon, Taylor and Stewart, the woman astronaut we see only briefly asleep and then mummified just before the crash. While this is of course plausible, the resulting undercurrent of hatred towards Taylor just does not ring true to the men we know from the movie. While we sense there is no love lost between the men, there is no deep suspicion and even potential murderous tendencies between the men. Keeping so close to the subject matter of the film is a thin line the author has to thread and on this one point I found it to be a bit of a stretch.
But onto the more positive aspects and more importantly the new material not covered by the movie. The novel begins to diverge from the movie immediately after the scene of the first encounter with apes. The colony of mute humans along with the astronauts are hunted in the corn crop fields and they are all separated and rounded up. Landon soon awakes to find himself in the private home medical laboratory of Dr Galen, the chimpanzee doctor that we briefly see working on Taylor alongside Zira in the human jail-like ‘hospital’ in the movie. In that brief scene we hear the doctor complaining to Zira about “making it” in terms of professional recognition with the Ape Council. This desire we soon learn is not only personal ambition on the doctors part, but one that is pressed upon him by his socialite wife Liet. Liet also happens to be the cousin of Dr. Milo. Milo is of course the third ape to return to Earth in Escape, but also more notably the one responsible for salvaging the spaceship for that very escape. Being one of the more implausible aspects of the POTA movie saga, the answer to how Milo accomplished that feat will undoubtedly appeal to all ape fans.
Attempting to achieve a promotion and professional recognition, Dr. Galen decides to ignore protocol as well as ethical research rules and performs live human experiments in his home laboratory. In order to perform some of his unorthodox research and surgical procedures, Dr. Galen requires precision tools and he counts on Milo to make them for him. Milo is a reluctant provider of these tools and only does so to appease family obligations. Landon, being one of Galen’s absconded humans is slated to undergo human experimentation himself. But Landon’s mind in a blurred state and as we learn, under the control of the faraway human mutants. The mutants are the council we know from Beneath. While the mutants mind control abilities are touted in the movie, the fact that they can control this one human who is so far was not very plausible, despite being explained that it was a ‘group effort’. Even more implausible was the momentary breaks in control that occurred in the presence of music. While Landon’s speech is not physically impeded he cannot speak while under the control of the mutants, except for those rare occasions when he would hear music and would suddenly become lucid. Inevitably, the paths of Dr. Milo and Landon cross and Landon’s secret is revealed to a very scientifically curious and sympathetic Milo.
Without going into too many details and spoilers, Milo learns the true story behind the arrival of the astronauts, the location of the shipwreck, and manages to have a group of scientists raise the ship to the surface. He also attempts some rudimentary flight experiments with a Leonardo Da Vinci style bamboo stick and animal hide flying contraption with some comical results.
Their is also an interesting side story in which Liet has a secret lover, Mungwortt, a goofy gorilla that provides some great comic relief. The character of Mungwortt is interesting as his social disposition (borderline vagrant public servant) and geneology (definitely lower on the evolutionary scale, mentally and physically) raises some interesting points about ape society and the separation of class and status.
There are plenty of nods to other aspects of POTA fandom and real people associated with POTA over the years. I especially liked the reference to a “Templeton” as a friend of Dr. Hasselein as a nod to Ty and his Revolution comic series. Again, most fans will enjoy many other references like it.
The story of course culminates with Landon getting a lobotomy, which is how he ended up in the movie. Almost an anti-climax really since it is all about the story as to how he got there.
On a final note, it has taken me so long to finish writing this review that there is already good news to add to it. A new book, Death on the Planet of the Apes has already been announced by Drew Gaska. Currently scheduled for next year (2013), I’m already salivating at the prospect of having another fine book in the series to sit next to Conspiracy.