Brunner was known to be a very workman-like author, producing many works that were quite readable but not particularly special. But in the mid-sixties he seemed to mature and produced a whole series of excellent to great novels, from Stand on Zanzibar to The Jagged Orbit. This work is part of that period of excellence.
If telepathy is a rare but very real talent, just how does society as a whole make productive use of it? One obvious use is to find out exactly what is wrong with people who are mentally ill, to become the ultimate psychiatrist, and if the talent extends to 'projection' of thoughts onto another brain, to effect corrective changes in the ill mind. With acceptance of this talent, the definition of 'ill' could possibly be extended to those who are violent, the trouble-makers of society. Coupled with a far more effective UN than exists today, telepaths could be used to help defuse the attitudes and situations that lead to revolutions and wars. This is the background against which Brunner tells a tale of a child of just such an aborted revolution, a child born with physical deformities, an uncaring mother and a dead father. Gerald Howson grows up without hope, the object of ridicule, trapped in a cycle of minimal dead-end jobs that are limited by his deformities.
But in his early twenties, he suddenly finds that he is one of the fabled telepaths, and a very powerful one. His first real use of the talent is to draw a deaf and dumb girl into a detailed fantasy, made more than real by his talent, a fantasy neither would really wish to wake from. Forcibly dragged out of this fantasy by other telepaths who have tracked down his radiated power, he is taken to the UN center for training and rehabilitation. But Gerald is far from a whole man at this point, and the story of his growth and maturation forms the balance of the work.
The characterization of Gerald is excellent, a man we can see change and empathize with. Many of the secondary characters are just as sharply delineated, and the interplay between them and the envisioned world society so dominated by the actions of the UN peace-keeping forces forms a convincing picture of what could be. Issues of privacy, individuality, self-responsibility, and the proper use of power form the thematic backbone, highlighted against some vivid scenes of internal mental worlds that demonstrate just how alluring living inside such a fantasy can be.
Portions of this book are somewhat dated, from the use of typewriters to a stated method of trying to combine music and visual form, which has been long superceded by modern computer integration of the two. But these technological items are almost irrelevant to the thrust of the story, of just what it is that man does beyond surviving to give him that inner feeling of correctness and satisfaction with doing something that is worth doing.
Incomprehensibly out of print, this book was nominated for the 1965 Hugo Award, and to my mind is better than the book that won that year, Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)