Review by C.J. Bunce
Philip K. Dick′s 1972 novel We Can Build You, his 22nd novel, has its strengths, the first half of the novel full of several thought-provoking ideas that each would have been better served pared down as one of Dick’s fantastic short stories. From there it slides precipitously off the cliff into the incomprehensible–an attempt at showing a protagonist with an unstable mind inside what is by all other indications the set-up for a future America sci-fi story. Originally written in 1962 and not published for a decade, and released first as A. Lincoln, Simulacrum, the story is centered on Louis Rosen, an entrepreneur in 1982 with questionable business acumen who co-owns a musical organ company. We Can Build You begins to illustrate what it might be like to build a new race of artificial humans, previewing many specific elements that would become the framework of many later films, novels, and shows (like the Humans television series 45 years later). The “simulacra” business branches off as a natural spin-off of a keyboard type organ that interacts with the mind in the future from the 1962 perspective–simulacra being a favorite early sci-fi construct in Dick’s works, also called a Replicant or android in his other works.
For a few dozen pages Dick examines what it is to be alive, for a human or a sentient robot, this time in a new way, showing two simulacra, one a nearly perfect construct of Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war during the Civil War, and later, a simulacra of President Lincoln himself. Why? Because of America’s fascination with the Civil War following the commemoration of its centennial in 1961 (when Dick was writing the novel). How these highly functioning automatons react to these businessmen in the Pacific Northwest “in the future” and the ideas to use them concocted by the story’s wealthy progenitor to Elon Musk form the best sections of the book. The biggest struggle is with the second half of the novel, when Louis, who serves as the novel’s narrator–with no prior warning–becomes fixated on his partner’s daughter, named Pris. Louis slips rapidly into some form of schizophrenia, obsessed with the 18-year-old, and the reader becomes aware he also has the unfortunate malady of being a textbook unreliable narrator.
Was any part of this novel real? Was the infatuation never mutual (like with Quentin Tarentino’s insane brother in From Dusk Till Dawn?). Did his organ company really propose making simulacra as entertainment to re-enact the Civil War, or is the reader crazy for even believing that could have been a legitimate plot point? Was Pris real or only a figment of his mind? Did his brother really have an “upside down face” (Dick describes it as some kind of mutation of some future people) or Louis really believed this because of his mental disease and his false reality? Was anyone real? Every step of the way modern readers familiar with Dick’s more famous work Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) will see the inspiration for the Replicant also named Pris in that later work, not published until a decade after We Can Build You, and will question whether this Pris is a simulacra, too, or something else.
Dick has several opportunities to save this book from disaster, but he failed to take advantage of them. He could have circled back to the characters and romance inside the world created in his head as we saw in the sci-fi movie Source Code. The novel could have taken a bleak turn and revealed that Louis was also a simulacra (one interpretation of the novel leaves this as a possibility), which would have come as no surprise, but at least it would have rounded out the story especially if Louis was left to portray an artificial construct family on Luna (aka the Earth’s moon)–a concept briefly hinted at early in the story. An episode of Star Trek Voyager ended up involving outdated emergency medical hologram (EMH) programs relegated to scrubbing plasma conduits on waste transfer barges, and it really seemed like that was where the story was headed.
It’s worth noting that Amazing Stories editor Ted White worked with Dick on an additional chapter for the serialized version that Dick pulled from the novel edition. White felt the version as written didn’t leave the reader with a completed novel (if only Dick had heeded his advice!). Also, Dick himself said of the novel, “I wrote it while I was trying to fuse my mainstream stuff with my science fiction stuff, so it’s not quite science fiction, in the usual sense of the word.” As for the Lincoln as android components, Dick only broaches the avenues he could have explored with the character (for a much better sci-fi read, check out Connie Willis’s Lincoln’s Dreams).
Dick did get some things right as foreshadowing goes. Mental illness did increase over the next decade and beyond, and the profession of psychoanalysis with it. But Dick’s future visions from most of his novels, with settings of the 1980s and 1990s, still, fortunately or not, have not come to pass yet, despite the hundreds of concepts and technologies that are now commonplace that he did predict (mostly in his short stories).
As a life-long Philip K. Dick enthusiast, I was pleased with the first half of the novel, but like many of the last half of his catalog of novels, disappointed with the end. Dick’s use of drugs and fixation on mental issues prompted him often to verge away from the central themes of his novels, as happened here. But the ideas are there, and that is why his fans continue to return to his works. Fantastic ideas, but not always a polished execution. For completist of Dick’s works, published under the title Dick preferred over the more interesting A. Lincoln, Simulacra, We Can Build You continues to be available in several editions. Find it here at Amazon.
Check out prior reviews in our series on PKD’s novels and stories here:
Philip K. Dick’s cover art archive
borg articles referencing Philip K. Dick