We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick
Although Philip K. Dick’s 28th science fiction novel, We Can Build You, was first published in book form as a 95-cent DAW paperback in July 1972, it had actually been written a good decade before, and first saw the light of day under the title “A. Lincoln, Simulacrum” in the November 1969 and January 1970 issues of Amazing Stories. As revealed by Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin, the book was in part inspired by the centennial of the Civil War and by a simulation of Abraham Lincoln that Phil had recently seen in Disneyland.
In We Can Build You, we meet a pair of businessmen in Ontario, Oregon — Maury Frauenzimmer and (our narrator) Louis Rosen — who sell pianos and electric organs and who are about to branch out into a new line of endeavor: mechanical “simulacra” (think: robots) of various Civil War figures. When their Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton creations come to the attention of Trump-like real estate developer Sam K. Barrows, a plot is hatched to start sending simulacra to the newly developed moon, as a lure for future settlers. But things get a tad complicated, when Louis falls for the dubious charms of Maury’s mentally unstable daughter, Pris, and the mechanical creations start evincing more sanity and compassion than their creators….
To my great surprise, We Can Build You turns out to be a very sweet, sad, insightful and amusing Dick book; quite lovely, really. It is a comparative rarity in the Dick canon in that it is told in the first person, although Louis becomes an increasingly problematic source of information as the novel proceeds. The book feels different from many of Dick’s others, perhaps for that reason, although many of the author’s pet tropes — cigars, German words, classical music, drugs, the slippery nature of “reality,” Cheyenne, Wyoming (of all places!), insanity, divorce and suicide — are again trotted out. We Can Build You has loads of excellent, naturalistic dialogue, and the relationship between the two Jewish partners is a touching one.
The story, in truth, almost feels as if it could have been written by, oh, Robert Heinlein, with its near future (1982) setting and simply written style; almost, but not quite. The book grows increasingly strange and unsettling toward its conclusion (Phil Dickian, I believe the expression is), as the thrust of the plot veers away from the sci-fi elements and decidedly toward the realm of the mentally disturbed; I, Robot meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
We Can Build You has some typically wonderful imaginative touches, such as Louis’ mutant brother with his upside-down face, the U.S. president having been married 41 times (36 more than Phil would attain to!), and the intravenous birth-control injections. Pris, grating and obnoxious as she is, yet remains a marvelously complex character; Sutin calls her Dick’s “most intense exploration of his ‘dark-haired girl’ obsession.” An 18-year-old ex-schizophrenic, she is certainly an unusual object of adoration for the 33-year-old Rosen; still, they do make for a dynamic, feisty couple. And the discussion that the mechanical Lincoln has with Barrows, regarding what makes a man a man and a machine a machine… well, one might have to wait another 15 years, till the second-season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man,” to hear a more compelling argument regarding the rights of a mechanical construct.
We Can Build You, likable as it is, is hardly a perfect Dick novel. Several plot threads just peter out, and even the central story line involving the simulacra is left hanging in midair. Phil makes a few slips in his book, too (Lincoln was 31 in 1840, not 29; Attis was a Phrygian god, not a goddess), although he seems to have taken especial care with his general prose here; it is more mature and well crafted than in many earlier books. In all, kind of a special addition to the Dick canon, and one that I actually found pretty moving. Way to go, Phil!