Most will be familiar with Stefan Wul's Oms en série
through the animated film adaptation released in 1973, La planète sauvage
to French speakers, Fantastic Planet
to English speakers. It's certainly how I discovered this book. And while I thought the film was fine for what it was: a beautifully animated and drawn film with some truly fantastic designs and an interesting premise, I felt it was lacking in almost every other regard. I was hoping the book it was based on could provide me with something a bit more substantial.
Written in 1951, it wasn't until a few years ago that it was finally translated to English. The writing feels very mediocre, but that could be more the fault of the translator than the author. Same goes for the sloppy and inconsistent grammar. If the writing ever held any eloquence it has since been lost. The translation gets the job done in telling the story, and I suppose we should be grateful that this even got an English translation, but I definitely suspect it to be the work of an amateur.
The story itself is simple and straight-forward. If you're familiar with the film then you know the basic story. There's some differences but for the most part it's essentially the same tale: On an alien planet humans (Oms) are ruled by giants (Traags), who treat them as mere animals, until the humans (Oms) get tired of the oppression and rise up. It's an interesting, even if simple, premise. I like the idea that if we seemed as small as ants to someone we would be treated as such. I liked how the Oms used their shorter lifetimes to their advantage, being able to work faster and develop quicker than the Traags. I liked the way evolution was handled, which I'll let the book's own "Spraw's theory" explain: "Spraw was a scholar from the last lustrum. He claimed the Oms once enjoyed a brilliant degree of civilization similar to ours, but that its perfection was the very reason of a gradual sclerosis. Strictly imprisoned within their rules and regulations, the Oms did not have the need to think. Spraw thought instinct took over their intelligence. Why think when one leads a perfect life where everyone knows in advance what they must do? The Oms' intelligence, how can I say, wasted away gradually, like a useless organ. Their lifestyle regressed and stagnated. Their civilization's progress thus stopped."
That's about as deep as the book ever gets, but it's still interesting. The fact that in a truly perfect world instinct would be more useful than intelligence is certainly a plausible one. The book later goes on to explain how the Traags, in ruling the Oms, gave them back their individuality, their taste for freedom, and put them back on the road to progress. Cool stuff, wish there was more like it in the book. Also perhaps worth mentioning is the likely Cold War influence that was present in this book, as with many sci-fi books of the time.
Like I said, it's a light read. There's not much here. The sloppy translation doesn't help matters. The short novel has its moments but certainly not enough of them to make it anything truly worthwhile. I'd say stick with the film, not because it does anything better (aside from the visuals, of course), it'll just waste less of your time (73 mins.).