Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: 'The Whole Man' by John Brunner

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Whole Man’ was first published in 1964 as a fix-up of three stories Brunner published in the late 50s in sf magazines. The novel went through a number of reprintings throughout the 60s and 70s; this Ballantine edition came out in August 1973, with a colorful cover illustration by Charles Moll.

The story opens in the near-future, in a city unnamed, but probably London. The social order has collapsed; anarchists are detonating bombs, and food is scarce. UN forces are converging on the city to restore order. Amidst this unrest, a sickly, impoverished woman named Sarah Howson gives birth to a son.

Gerald Howson is underweight, suffers from a clubbed foot, and a spinal malformation; as he matures, he becomes a recluse in his rundown neighborhood. When his mother dies at an early age Gerald is left to fend for himself as best he can. But Gerald has a gift to offset his deformity; he can ‘hear’ extraordinarily well. In fact, Gerald Howson is a telepath, perhaps the most gifted such being on the planet.

In due course Howson finds himself recruited into an elite unit of UN telepaths, stationed in Ulan Bator. The UN telepath unit is charged with using their abilities to control violence and conflict throughout the world. Gerald’s talent enables him to do more than simply tap into the thoughts of others; he is able to enter into the intense dream state, or ‘catapathic trance’, that can steal upon unwary  telepaths. Once lost in their trance-state the telepath risks starving to death, unable to break free of the vivid dream-world occupying their minds. Only the intervention of another telepath can free these unfortunates from their mental prisons.

When one of the UN’s most important telepaths becomes caught in a catapathic trance, it’s up to Gerald Howson to intrude upon the man’s fantasy and restore sanity. But such a therapy is not without risk, for once inside his patient’s daydream, Howson is vulnerable to the whims and decisions of his host; a false move, and Howson will find his own psyche fatally trapped within the selfsame trance…..

‘Whole’ is typical of Brunner’s fix-ups from the late 60s – early 70s; a workmanlike effort, but devoid of the conscious effort he applied to works such as ‘The Shockwave Rider’, 'Stand on Zanzibar',  and 'The Sheep Look Up’. It is, however, more accessible than those novels.

‘Whole’ suffers in part from its rather fragmented origins; the narrative thread linking the three main segments of the book is a bit thin. There is not much in the way of real action in the novel; rather, it is a deliberately-paced character study of Gerald Howson’s emotional journey from being a crippled outcast to the ‘whole man’ of the book’s title. 

I suspect ‘The Whole Man’ will really only appeal to Brunner completists and to those looking for the type of ‘inner space’ – directed novel that came of age during the New Wave movement.

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