James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Millennial Review XVII: The Whole Man by John Brunner (1964)

The Whole Man

By John Brunner 

30 Jan, 2000

Millennial Reviews


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

The Whole Man
John Brunner
Del Rey, 1964 [fix-up from 1958, 1959]
188 pages

Synopsis: During a period of civil unrest, Gerald Howson is born. He is terribly deformed and a bleeder, something his mother knew was possible, but she was more interested in using the pregnancy to blackmail Howson’s father into marrying her. The father is dead, and she is stuck with Gerald. Miss Howson briefly meets a UN Pacification Agency telepathist, Ilse Kronstadt, who is horrified at the mother’s priorities.

Gerald has a tolerable childhood, not especially loved by his mother or the man she works for but not overtly abused either. His mother dies of cancer and Gerald is on his own. He supports himself doing odd jobs until one day he overhears’ a conversation between two hoods. He sells the information to another criminal, who uses it. Gerald is enjoying the money he was paid when he realises he is the object of a hunt and he runs, taking refuge in an old warehouse.

He meets a young girl there, deaf and mute since birth, who has been denied the standard treatments for her condition because of inept parenting. He gradually realises he can read minds: he reads hers and gets her life story from her. He then constructs a telepathic fantasy world for the two of them to enjoy together and they become entirely enthralled, ignoring the external world. The external world cannot ignore him: even untrained, he is telepathically audible in orbit. The authorities come to rescue him: he lashes out, badly injuring a helicopter pilot. Another telepath punishes him mentally, giving him graphic visions and sensation from the POV of the pilot and showing him just how destructive his fugue state could become.

Gerald is taken to Ulan Bator, where his injuries are treated. The WHO can do little for his deformities, although his companion is trivial to fix up. He falls into a deep funk until he is able to save the life of Kronstadt using his new abilities.

Years pass. Gerald is vaguely unhappy. Matters come to a head when another highly trusted telepathist uses his abilities to deliberately set up a group fugue, apparently trusting that Gerald will snap him out of it. When awakened, the telepathist Choong explains he did it for a bit of entertainment. Gerald realises he is unhappy but has never learned non-work-related skills.

He decided to return to his home city for the first time in 11 years. He meets old acquaintances: some fear him, some dislike him. Abandoning that avenue, he explores a nearby campus, built since he lived in the city. He makes friends with a few students. One attempts to kill himself and Gerald, recognising telepathic talent in one of the women there, uses her to do first aid. By exploring the reasons for the attempted suicide [an artist’s frustration at an inability to communicate synesthesia] he comes to appreciate the potential of his own talents and becomes something of a mass telepathic artist.

The book ends when a cure for his deformities is discovered, more or less out of left field but based on the extremely dippy biology in The Whole Man.

I think was written around the time Brunner was reinventing himself, going from a pulp writer to something more ambitious. I found The Whole Man episodic and shallow, and none of the characters, even Gerald, really resonated for me. The biological model Brunner uses is astoundingly wrong, even by 1950s standards. I would outline it except any biologist reading it would have their head explode from disbelief.

OTOH, on rereading The Whole Man, I realised I had always assumed that the unnamed city was in the US but as far as I can tell, there is no evidence for this. The most I could narrow it down was English speaking nation with a lot of British surnames’.

It is interesting to see the change in how some ideas get used in SF. A UN Pacification Agency would bring visions of black helicopters to a lot of folks today: give it telepaths as well and people would be looking over their shoulders for French Cyborgs.

Because this future has telepaths who by the nature of their talent find very hard to act maliciously [Except for the sadists among them, which they must winnow out, as we don’t run into any Alice Hong, UN Pacification Agency Telepathist], telepaths who all work for the UN in one capacity or another, its history has diverged quite a bit from ours: the UN has real power and uses it. Technology is advanced in the standard ways: people on Mars, very capable medicine. Criminals can be rehabilitated, transformed from parasites to dedicated UN workers [and wouldn’t that get a different spin today]. Telepathic mental treatment is available, although Freud still seems to be in fashion. Not a terrible future, at least for the telepaths.