The novel “The Whole Man”, also known as “Telepathist”, by John Brunner was published for the first time in 1964 restructuring three novellas published in previous years.
Gerald Howson was born in very unfortunate circumstances: his father was a terrorist who died before his birth and the baby shows various physical deformities. His mother has little interest in him so while he’s growing he has to learn quickly to fend for himself. For the young Gerald things change when he realizes he has telepathic abilities.
Telepaths are rare and their work is important in the course of diplomatic activities needed to resolve crises that may break out around the world. Gerald Howson has learned to trust no one but when his telepathic emissions are picked up by others like him he’s forced to choose between living in secret and try to change his life.
In the early years of his career, John Brunner wrote adventurous science fiction stories minding much more about quantity than quality. In 1958 he published the novella “City of the Tiger”, followed the next year by “The Whole Man” and “Healing Telepath”, which form Gerald Howson’s story. The novellas were restructured to form the novel “The Whole Man”, which in some ways is the opposite of what the author had written at the beginning of his career.
Telepathy is a classic element of science fiction but it was generally placed in adventurous stories in which the telepath was often a superhero or their antagonist or was persecuted for his skills. Instead, John Brunner went in a direction totally opposite to those stereotypes and wrote a story about a telepath born with physical deformities in a world where telepaths enjoy great consideration.
Gerald Howson’s is very introspective but at the beginning John Brunner tells the story of his birth, which took place in complicated circumstances. At first the reader discovers a world that doesn’t look better than the era in which the novel was written and perhaps even decadent. It’s a world in which there appear to be continuous regional crises and medicine made no great progress as it can do nothing to correct little Gerald’s physical problems.
Gerald Howson grows in a poor environment with a mother who was hoping to find stability through her pregnancy but found herself alone with a deformed child. In that situation he must quickly learn to fend for himself but his situation changes radically when his telepathic powers start emerging.
The young Gerald Howson is in some ways a victim of the environment in which he grew up because he learned not to trust other people. The consequence is that he tries to hide his powers instead of contacting someone who could help him develop them. In that period of scarce and precarious human contacts, introspection derives from Gerald’s isolation.
John Brunner develops the story with Gerald Howson’s attempts to manage his powers. The protagonist seeks above all to find a wholeness because he keeps on feeling in many ways inadequate even when his telepathy reaches very high power levels. Gerald’s inner search passes through various stages and is influenced by various events.
One of the elements of the novel is the telepaths’ ability to create what are called catapathic groups, fantasies that can be shared among several people. They represent for telepaths a temptation that can be dangerous because of the risk of getting lost in the fantasy and estranged from reality.
Catapatici these groups were the original idea on which John Brunner built the stories that make up “The telepath.” The project was to write a series of stories set in the fantasy of a telepathic but the author changed his mind and decided to focus on the protagonist and his relationship with catapathic groups is another problem for him.
For this reason, Gerald Howson is the novel’s absolute protagonist while the other characters come and go. The consequence is that he’s by far the most developed character while only the most important among the others have a well-defined personality such as Gerald’s mother or the telepath Ilse Kronstadt.
Given the introspective side’s considerable importance, “The Whole Man” is far from an action story and the pace tends to be slow but I think it still flows well, also because it’s not a long novel and there are many moments of emotional intensity. The story crosses decades focusing in particular on key periods of Gerald Howson’s life.
“The Whole Man” is considered a classic of science fiction, in my opinion rightly so. Today stories of people with superpowers who have physical and/or psychological problems are common but when the stories that make up this novel were written they were the exception. If such stories are common today it’s also thanks to John Brunner and for that reason I think this is still a must-read novel.