john brunner the whole man
John Brunner
Ballantine Books

Gerald Howson didn’t look powerful. His body was deformed at birth, leaving him with a face so ugly people didn’t want to look at him, and crippled legs that would never let him be as other men. But his mind was one in a billion – gifted with the ability to send and receive thoughts more powerfully than any other person on the face of the globe. At first Howson thought his peculiar ability was odd, and then he thought he might be able to get a little extra money by snooping on people. But when his ability finally was discovered by others, he became so powerful that he could use his gift to heal the minds of those who suffered from terrible emotional or psychological trauma…or he could withdraw into a phatasmagoric wonderland of psychic imagining, never to emerge into the real world of human experience again. Whichever decision he made, his life and the lives of countless others would never be the same again.

It’s funny how sometimes you happen across something by accident, and have it turn out to be a pleasant one (for once). For instance, I initially came across this particular book back in the later part of the Aughts, while visiting my then-girlfriend. In the basement of her apartment complex, along with the soda machines and washer/dryer machines, was a table that was set up for the residents to put stuff they didn’t want, but didn’t feel like hauling off to whatever approximate facsimile of a Goodwill they had in Abaline, Kansas. One afternoon, as I was down there to get a couple of cans of soda, I noticed a couple of mass paperback books that looked like they were published in the 60s, including The Whole Man by John Brunner. Inscribed inside the front cover of this book, in pencil, was DIDN’T READ IT, DON’T WANT TO in perhaps the more shaky cursive I’ve seen since my own in grade school. So, being the way I am, I went and adopted these two books, including this one that’s the subject of this review, to live with me.

That’s the way I am. Most people adopt pets or children; I adopt books. They’re my children. My therapist tells me I’m making good progress.

The Whole Man tells the tale of Gerald Howson, born in a military hospital in the middle of a civil war, to a mother who didn’t really want him to begin with, his father a revolutionary that was shot dead long before he was born. Add to this the massive physical deformities he had, including a slightly shorter leg, an asymmetrical face and, later on in his development, the inability to mature and grow beyond a few feet and never losing his “baby face”, while still maintaining his high-pitched childlike voice. Nevertheless, Gerald manages to make an existence for himself, however much of a pittance it is; until, one evening after a series of (for lack of a better word) events, he discovers that he’s not only a telepath, but a very powerful one at that. Which prompts a government agency of sorts to come in and take him to their facility where they specialize in helping telepaths and others of similar psychic phenomena to develop their talents without becoming a vegetable or turning others in their general vicinity into vegetables as well. Over time, Gerald becomes a very talented doctor, helping many others to develop their talents; but despite all of this, he still wrestles with the existential quandary of becoming a “whole man”. This leads to a soul-searching walkabout of sorts. And without letting on as to how it ends specifically, let’s just say he finds what he’s looking for. The end.

Yeah, it’s as much an ambiguous description as I can get, without spoiling things with a detailed description. But, for the most part, The Whole Man fairly decent. It’s kind of an exploration of the human desire to be loved and accepted in a society that at best pitys them, and at worst fears them to the point of persecution. Maybe not X-Men levels here, but in this book’s world telepaths are known to exist, but are given a nice positive spin thanks to popular action movies featuring very prominent telepathic protagonists. The way that this existential quandary is handled is surprisingly potent, while maintaining a rather easy narrative that seems to have existed back in the 1950s and 1960s. Real meat and potatoes kind of sci-fi writing.

Overall, The Whole Man was a rather good read, leading me to wonder what kind of person would get this book and not want to read it any way. The ending was maybe a bit too uplifting for my tastes, but that’s because I’m a hard jaded fan of nihilistic endings in my science fiction. If you come across this, check it out.