Philip K Dick: We Can Build You

December 24, 2018

511UzZrk1BL._AC_US218_After the previous novel, this one comes as a complete contrast and quite a shock. Biographies of Philip Dick detail his various mental health issues and We Can Build You seems to reflect them, and his preoccupation with them. We are in a weird future world where mental illness is the norm and treatment mandated by the Federal Government; the various illnesses are vaguely linked to fallout from nuclear testing. This is another recurrent Dickian trope, the after-effects of all the atmospheric explosions in the fifties and sixties. At the same time, the first human simulacra are being perfected (we would nowadays call them androids).

So, utterly different territory from The Man in the High Castle. Here at one point the narrator decides he must be a simulacrum, and as he appears to collapse into mental illness himself as the story develops, it seems that the woman to whom he is attracted is also one.

We are in Frankenstein territory here, but with a twentieth century twist: is life being created when a simulacrum is built and then programmed with detailed memories of its actual human forbear? Does it have rights? Is it human? What sort of relationship can it have to our world, if it is out of its own time, and what responsibilities do its manufacturers or creators have? Once again, we are seeing what good literature and good science fiction can do: make us pause and reflect on our own world. We can also see the origins of a more famous Dick novel in which simulacra feature more dominantly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the film Blade Runner. Even the main female character has the same name…

Can one have sex with an android? Can a human be in love with an android? Here are questions which we may be considering in our own world in the not too distant future. And if a person suffers from a personality disorder which makes their behaviour and reactions resemble those of an android, where on earth are we then? Dick is most definitely on the level of ordinary people and their lives and feelings in this novel, which eventually seems to resolves itself into an unrequited love story, and a very sad one at that.

It is rather rambling and shapeless at times, as his narrator disintegrates mentally, and even so it does become quite a gripping story as we want his love to be returned. Dick presents psychosis quite clearly, along with other more common human emotions and feelings, and as I approached the end of the novel, I could see that the next one in the timeline, Martian Time-Slip, which also deals with a range of mentally disturbed states, flows out of this one, as does the treatment of such disorders with the use of hallucinogenic drugs – much explored in the nineteen-sixties – and this leads us on to the astonishing Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Because I experienced the novel working effectively on a human level, (and I think that this is part of the unrecognised brilliance of Dick), I found the ending of the novel very sad and very moving. I also have to recognise that there were rather too many loose ends left unsorted, though…

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