Death by monkeys – great genre apes

Posted: March 12, 2014 in reading, watching
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I love monkeys. Not in the bad way, like those ancient folks who bred with horses and gave us the centaur menace. In a clean, wholesome, childish fascination kind of way. Because monkeys are awesome.

I should clarify that I don’t just mean monkeys, I mean all apes. But ‘monkey’ is a far better word to say. Just role it around in your mouth for a moment. Monkey. Then ape. It’s like deciding between trousers and pants. Let me tell you, Americans and other linguistic heathens, you are missing out by abandoning the trouser.

Monkeys know how to live

Monkeys know how to live

It was a trip to the zoo on my way back from holiday seven years ago that cemented apes among my favourite creatures. I watched the gibbons going nuts in their cages, swinging around, screeching, rattling the bars, flashing their teeth and everything else at passers by. And I thought to myself, that looks like fun. Those guys know how to live.

But what’s even better than a monkey? A science fiction or fantasy monkey of course. So here are some of my favourites.

The Librarian

You’re civilised folks, so I’m going to assume that you’ve read some Terry Pratchett. And while those books are full of great characters, by far my favourite is the librarian.

The librarian is basically the part of my brain that wants to be a gibbon. Transformed into an orangutan, he not only accepts his change of state but relishes it. It’s pure wish fulfilment, staying smart enough to read but dumb enough to communicate in ‘ook’s, swinging through the rafters by your toes, eating bananas and screeching at idiots.

And lets face it, what bookish nerd hasn’t wanted the strength and social licence to beat their mockers senseless?

Toy Story 3

I never watched Toy Story 3 before last night. I know, shame on me. It’s a beautiful work of children’s fantasy, full of noble ideals and talking toys. But what’s even better than a beautiful children’s fantasy?

A beautiful children’s fantasy with apes.

Honestly, they had me three minutes in with the line ‘death by monkeys’. But it was the monkey watching the security screens that really did it for me. A cute animal was made sinister by his bared teeth and the washed-out glow of those monitors. The juxtaposition with his happy clapping cymbals just made him all the more menacing.

Because that’s the thing about apes. Like people, they’re not just smart, funny and adorable. They can also be sinister and downright dangerous, like the baboons that invade isolated South African commuter townships, or the Mediterranean apes that raid cafés for booze. These are monkeys as mad villains or outsider antiheroes. I love those monkeys too, though I wouldn’t want to stand between them and a whiskey.

Ack-Ack Macaque

A gun wielding, cigar chomping, pulp action pilot ape. If that sentence doesn’t make you want to read a book then you’re lost to me.

I haven’t got round to reading Ack-Ack Macaque yet, but it’s been on my list since I read this review. I love the wild spectacle of old pulp stories, before people had such fixed ideas about what was possible and what fitted in each genre. You got space rockets to planets full of purple people. You got mole men beneath the earth. You got hidden temples, alien invaders and two-fisted heroes, probably all in the same book. And a cigar-chomping ape pilot seems the perfect embodiment of that.

Gibboning it up

How much do I love apes in fantasy settings? I have spent a whole weekend being one. Inspired by my visit to the zoo, I decided to play one in a live roleplay game.

What I actually played was a demonic imp called Gibbon, who ate monkey nuts, threw the shells at passers by and only spoke in ooks. I walked the monkey walk, screeched at people I didn’t like, generally aped it up. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had, and though I only did it twice in fifteen years at that game, it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. Years later, people I didn’t know at the time would say to me ‘wait, you were that guy?’.

I love monkeys, but how about you? What apes have I missed? Or is there another beast you prefer in your fiction?

Picture by Ian (cr03) via Flickr creative commons

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Comments
  1. glenatron says:

    The librarian is one of the classic characters of British fiction, I think and one of the few who survive consistently from Pratchett’s early work right the way through.

    There is a character called Ape in “The Gates Of Noon” the second book in Michael Scott Rohan’s somewhat underrated Spiral series who has a few ape-like characteristics and plays a pivotal role in the story in that respect. All three books in that series are worth a read in my view, although long since out of print.

    • Given how many other characters he managed to cram in, I was a little disappointed that Pratchett didn’t find time for the librarian in Raising Steam. But not over-using him may be for the best – it means he’s kept his edge as some other Discworld characters have become almost excessively reasonable.

  2. joshnstanton says:

    Thanks for the link.

    Great post. You have named some interesting monkeys there. Ack-Ack Macque is a great monkey character. So looking forward to the next two books with him in it. Total. Badass.

    It wouldn’t be right without me talking about a steampunk monkey. There is one in Mark Hodder’s Spring Heel Jack. Really surprised me when the character showed up. The things you can do with science.

    • Now I’m pretty intrigued about Spring Heel Jack as well. Though I find that particular urban legend fascinating in its own right – such a strangely Victorian mix of traditional concerns and urban industrial detail. One more for the never-ending to-read pile.

  3. […] Death by monkeys – great genre apes […]

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