The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner

TheWholeManAnd then we have The Whole Man.

It’s not Stand on Zanzibar.

The End.


Whatinole do you want? A synopsis? Fine.

Gerald Howson is born into disadvantaged circumstances with a disadvantaged physique, while a vague world crisis occupies the background. The short-statured, slumped boy with developmental delays struggles through life, until one day, his latent telepathic skills activate. When a crime career doesn’t pan out, he joins a group of telepathists to guide the world and each other because, without proper guidance, telepathists can be the most dangerous threat to humanity.

It basically occurs in three acts, a la Karate Kid*: discovery of self, training of self, proving and rediscovering self. In ways, it doesn’t feel like a complete story, just a playground of ideas to take effect later, possibly due to its status as a fix-up of three earlier novelettes. Brunner throws in some creative inventions: a visual musical organ, wet fireworks, a moldy dream dragon. Perhaps the coolest invention is catapathy, a dreamlike state resulting from a telepathic coma that could result in death for participants who become so entrenched in their fantasies that they forget to feed themselves. But it takes some treading through a rather mediocre story to get to the cool stuff.

TheWholeMan2Gerald is an interesting study as a vintage character with special needs, who “accepted discomfort as a fact of existence, because his distorted body was uncomfortable simply to live in” (ch. 1). A quiet child, his verbal delays suggest contemplation, rather than something neurological, “as though he had delayed speaking deliberately until he had thought the matter through” (ch. 3). However, being a vintage read, the lingo surrounding Gerald’s developmental and biological special needs might bother the modern reader, although Brunner’s treatment of Gerald is atypically sensitive in this sixties story. “Deformed” is used quite regularly, but never the “M-word,” which is quite surprising for this era. But, to the consternation of modern SF readers looking for properly treated characters with special needs, Gerald’s purpose is entirely about his struggle to overcome his limitations and poor sense of self, rather than just, you know, being a person who happens to _____. And, of course, the title itself spoils the way Gerald’s personal self-esteem plays out. Just mid-century chicken soup.

This novel is better experienced as a study of the seeds of Zanzibar. Gerald’s birth defects foreshadow Zanzibar’s character strands dealing with issues of eugenics and state-mandated birth control laws. We see hints of the shiggies when Gerald’s mother becomes a “housekeeper-mistress” (ch. 3) and we also meet a hemophiliac who calls himself a “bleeder” (ch. 9). A vague world crisis permeates the background, though where SoZ directly links its problems to overpopulation, hegemony, and depersonalization, the back story of The Whole Man remains unexplained– not because Brunner doesn’t want to develop the background, but because his characters are poor, uneducated, incurious. They know there is a crisis because people talk about a crisis, but all they know is that they’re hungry. When the crisis inexplicably lifts, they carry on, always lacking in comfort and security.

TheWholeMan3Akin to Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953), but forgettable, especially if you’ve already read Sturgeon’s more poignant examination of humanity’s next step, which, according to the mid-20th SF writers is telepathy, (although we know it’s actually chicken fries). But the genre gurus say this is the transition point for Brunner, from producing disposable SF to creating landmark SF, where nihilistic world building and social criticism occupy the narrative.

Overall, The Whole Man feels like an exploration of the less-privileged parts of SoZ’s First World, at least until Gerald breaks out of his poverty to become a famous telepathic mediator. It’s well-done in the atmospheric sense, but stale and monotonous as a story, and structured without those exciting, Dos Passos-style syncopated glimpses.

It’s just not Stand on Zanzibar.


*I never saw Karate Kid.

14 thoughts on “The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner

  1. Sheesh wasn’t I just here for a Brunner review like yesterday? First the breakneck pace of those BSFA posts and now this, don’t know if I can keep up!

    Own it, haven’t read it, intrigued by this “moldy dream dragon” of which you speak. Something tells me it wasn’t as impressive as SoZ…


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think it’s actually a fungal dream dragon, now that I think about it. The whole catapathic dream sequence was pretty bodacious.

      “Something tells me it wasn’t as impressive as SoZ…”

      Whatever gave you that idea?


  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    I remember almost nothing from this particular Brunner novel. I’ve been thinking about rereading a handful of his works (not Sheep Look Up, Jagged Orbit, Stand etc) — for example, Bedlam Planet (1968). I can’t believe he wrote Stand WHILE writing other novels. I wonder how long the project actually took….


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I couldn’t remember much, either, and basically had to skim through it again just to write the review.

      I will be reading more of his work.


  3. unsubscriber says:

    Love the second cover, can’t beat a bit of Brunner!


  4. marzaat says:

    Love those covers.

    You could look at late Brunner with The Children of Thunder (1988). A police state, mutant sociopathic children, references to The Midwich Cuckoos, and pretty much no hope.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Sounds great! I haven’t thought about Brunner’s later fiction– it would certainly be interesting to check out.


  5. “Just mid-century chicken soup.” #twitterbookreviews

    I am skeptical about this mold dragon.

    I am also relieved that I am not the only one who has never seen Karate Kid.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The mold dragon makes a brief appearance during a catapathic hallucination. Karate Kid was my best friend’s favorite movie when we were little. I never saw it with her, but I think I heard enough about it to get the idea.


  6. […] The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner– Telepathy, catapathy, and a moldy dragon make up this tale about a disadvantaged man-turned-___, well, you get it. It’s not Stand on Zanzibar, though some of the elements are there. And Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) does post-human telepathy more compellingly. […]


  7. I wish catapathy was telepathy with cats.


  8. […] more impressive than the fun, but schticky disaster novel, The Wanderer. Brunner’s The Whole Man might have been a tad more interesting if I hadn’t already read Brunner’s […]


  9. […] John Brunner– not nearly as awesome as Stand on Zanzibar, but much better than the earlier The Whole Man. Like a more serious version of Vonnegut’s 1963 Cat’s […]


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