Uncanny Valley Digest: PKD’s We Can Build You

wecanbuildyouPKDOur We Can Build You discussion took on a life of it’s own, and yielded a variety of opinions. A mood organ salesman gets the bright idea to take Civil War re-enactment simulacra to market. If he can keep himself from falling in love with the designer, that is. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Build You, written in 1962, was not published until 1972. This loosely-wired book stands as a conceptual prequel to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

David: A lesser known PKD novel that doesn’t make it onto top-ten lists. Significant for a few reasons. It is Dick really trying to do his literary vision of himself, to use science fiction to satisfy his literary aspirations. It’s also an early treatment of robots for PKD. He ties robots to the Civil War and it has some insights worth exploring. “Anytime you make an animatronic Abraham Lincoln, you’re in for trouble.”

David: I’ve read this book before. It’s the first book that showed me I could love a book. I could say a lot, but would rather not start. What did you think of this book?
Chris: Peter Greenaway was the 1st filmmaker I ever hated. He had an attitude toward his audience. He wanted to torture them. Now that he has the viewer’s attention, he’s keen to make them as uncomfortable as he can.
Meg: I’ll second that, heh.
Chris: It’s a quality here that makes me ask, Who is the author? and What are they doing? He has no conception or regard for the audience. It’s rude. The whole book changes on a dime too often. Every chapter, sometimes every paragraph.
Suhail: I described it as “not exactly boring.”
David, Meg, Nowell: HAHAHA!
Chris: He abandoned the simulacrum many chapters before the end of the book.
Meg: A really lugubrious read. Every chapter goes in a completely different direction. In sci-fi terms, it was lacking the science and technology backdrop, which is one of the main things that I come to science fiction for.
Nikita: I loved it! I thought the language was super fresh. On a formal level, I  (think it’s split at the end like that for a reason. It seems to be a controlled exercise by him at reflecting the schizoid split in the main characters on a formal level in the novel. The theme of the novel is schizophrenic splitting. The novel itself takes that split form. Like in Lem, the dichotomy of the Woman (Anima) vs. The Father Figure (Safety). I feel like he’s doing this on a formal level.

Image credit: Mike Cherim via Getty Images

Nowell: I was more in the Nikita camp. I thought it was really fun. It made me laugh a lot. As soon as he fell in love with the 18 year old girl that was bad for him, I could see the dysfunction playing itself out. “I love her so much that I’ll threaten to shoot her date.” That’s a recognizable mental illness. Crazy classifications of mental illness, with the proliferation of mental institutions. It was funny how she showed Louis how to get out of the mental hospital, then stayed behind herself, not leaving.
Meg: It was very clever. I liked how mental illness was baked into the Lincoln character. The androids have more feelings than the humans do, or at least it blurs the continuum significantly.
David: It was written in 1962, after High Castle and Martian Time Slip. This was the first book he wrote after winning the Hugo Award. And his ego was bigger than ever. Simultaneously, he’s living with his 3rd wife in Pt. Reyes and she’s driving him crazy
Suhail: Maybe they’re driving each other crazy…
David: …and the marriage is coming apart.

Here David showed us images of a recent trip he took to Pt. Reyes where he checked on the home that Anne and Phil used to live in. It’s up for sale. In a previous visit to Pt. Reyes, David had the opportunity to take some photos of the interior of the home. And guess what? Anne Dick made a tile mural in their bathroom – the same mural described as Pris’s handiwork in the novel.

Click to read the issue.  Go to page 102 for Dick.

David: And Dick is sure he’s got it figured out! He’s married science fiction and mainstream. He goes to Disneyland and sees the animatronic Lincoln in the hall of presidents. There’s a missing ending to this book written, by magazine editor Tom White, to serialize it in the January 1970 issue of Amazing Stories. (White’s ending starts on page 102, and runs a few pages long.) Part of my fascination with this book is it’s like a demo tape, like a bonus track without the mixdown. It gives insight into the artist and his work. It’s first person, and he almost never writes in 1st person.

David: Rollo Reece May was an American existential psychologist and author of the influential book Love and Will. He is often associated with humanistic psychology and existentialist philosophy, and alongside Viktor Frankl, was a major proponent of existential psychotherapy. A quote by philosopher Rollo May that encapsulates something Dick is going for in this book: “The capacity of man to view himself as subject as well as object.” Rosen is this strange mixture of subject and object.
Chris: This strikes me as a hermeneutical exercise where you have predetermined that this author is brilliant and you’re running as fast as you can to draw the argument together. The greatness in this novel, is in you.
Nikita: I disagree. In starting this novel, I groaned, Oh-great-another-PKD-novel. But I fell in the rabbit hole. He’s a fucking genius. His references, like this Vygotsky test. I’ve been reading about them for years. In Russia, a huge dilemma in the 1920s to establish a new Marxist psychology to talk about the mental and physical aspects of human behavior. A monistic health attempt. He’s using Cartesian mind/body splits. I was interested in the use of this monad as the central computing device in the simulacra.

Click image to be more confused.

The monad: each of its parts contains the whole. A different conception of organization trying to depart from the Cartesian split. The Civil War is another split, a splitting of the U.S.A. on a deep conceptual line. He’s struggling with big ideas, trying to combine them, and he can not do it.
All: Hahaha
Nikita: Most of his references to clinics are real. Dick’s dipped into tons of psychology and philosophy.
David: Dick is predicting the synthesizer: An organ where you can pull the stops to mimic the sound of any instrument.
Chris: Examining the emperor’s shits to make sure the humors are in balance.
David: I didn’t love a book before Phil Dick. PKD is really good at this, but even he can’t pull it off.
Chris: It’s low brow. The characters have jobs and worries and flaws and they drink at bars. I like that about it.
Meg: We see Pris through Louis’s obsession. But at the end Pris is the heroine of the book. She achieves her objectives.
David: Where can we find more of this pulp, shlocky, sci fi, working class, sales-men-getting-drunk-at-bars talking about Plato, and sending robots to the moon?
Suhail: Let me read this Britannica definition of hebephrenic schizophrenia: “The hebephrenic or disorganized subtype of schizophrenia is typified by shallow and inappropriate emotional responses, foolish or bizarre behaviour, false beliefs (delusions), and false perceptions (hallucinations).” Reading this definition shed a ton of light on Louis Rosen’s annoying actions. He’s just using these psychiatric conditions as templates for the characters.
Chris: It’s a series of character sketches based on a checklist of symptoms.
Nowell: The robots were the old school perfect humans, beings more able, clear-headed, motivated, and together than the human characters. The organic characters go to the simulacra for leadership and guidance.
Meg: And they plan to turn the sims of the Civil War fighters into nannies. The robots take care of the sick and helpless organic humans.

Click to watch the clip of “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

David: Was Dick influenced by It’s A Wonderful Life? One line in particular jumps out: “Every time someone dies, a light winks on in Kansas City.”
Chris: All this stuff is in the compost of our minds and it kicks these things up when we’re searching for an image. Not “influenced,” perhaps, but an image. Influence requires a schema, a philosophy.
Chris: So, what is PKD’s best novel?
David: I say it’s a three-way tie between Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, and Valis.
Chris: I like Dr. Bloodmoney.
David: OK, what was the first PKD novel you read? Mine was A Scanner Darkly.
Nowell: This one.
Suhail: Clans Of The Alphane Moon
Chris: Our Friends From Frolix-8
Meg: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Nikita: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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The Notes!

4: Penfield, Jacobson, and Old, depth electrode hypothalamus information that the new Mood Organs are taking advantage of. Musical instruments that affect the hypothalamus.
5: The mood organ from DADOES?
5: hebephrenia (from Britannica.com: The hebephrenic or disorganized subtype of schizophrenia is typified by shallow and inappropriate emotional responses, foolish or bizarre behaviour, false beliefs (delusions), and false perceptions (hallucinations).
14: Rosen’s brother is a post-nuclear mutant birth
16: Dad’s instantly bombastic speech about…nothing?
18: A Civil War reenactment business using all androids. (Re-enact it every 10 years?)
20: Pris, another DADOES? prefigure
22: creepfest
23: creepfest and egocentric male chauvinist. exactly the sort of guy who’d fit right in on Mad Men.
25: the rights to land speculation on other planets. Like Space Merchants.
28: typical of PKDs view of women. Either useless and stupid or powerful and vindictive. He’s the interference, but thinks she oughta bow.
31-2: for them, Pris is a simulacrum, a near human as convincing as Edwin M. Stanton.
36-7: Pris “wielding” psychoanalysis on Louis
37: she gives him the diminutive treatment usually reserved for girls.
50: the psychoanalytic portal of reflection
51: a drug you can hum
52: Louis says he’s a simulacra, in a sudden lie to the doctor (knowing now that Louis ends up in the mental institution for hebephrenia, this erratic, shallow behavior makes sense.)
56: Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) and I have the same birthday, April 26. :o)
66: tenuous hypothesized continuity between your life and your AI.
73: Lincoln awakes
74: spoken like a man who doesn’t really like life
76: Tied to the stars by commerce? or by moral, spiritual, physical factors? any diff?
77: the rich captain of real estate industry is their portal to legitimacy, to reality
77: is an AI of someone a reincarnation? For the purposes of your interaction with it…
79: The Big Questions: Truth, Santa Claus.
81: parataxis, appropriating a grammatical term for some kind of emotional mental jumble.
82: Pris turns on a dime, from goading him to intense, unconvincing vulnerability. (consistent with the hebephrenia theme)
84: a “reasonable, urgent voice”? nope.
85: the Lincoln is a great moment, but ominous and sad, too
86: lying, for Louis, is fun, easy “power”
87: Pris has no maternal impulse. Well, she’s barely 18. give it a minute.
88: Louis and Pris speaking together gives me a sinking, creepy feeling that this is how PKD may have interacted with women. “I took her arm.” “Be sensible, you’re not that attractive.” “I patted her shoulder.” “I try to be nice, but you…” Etc. Blarg.
90: the manly warning/threat
97: wealth adoration (also, 165, 170)
100: he really does hate Pris.
107: easy lying for power (also consistent with the hebephrenia)
108: is that how Lincoln saw it, regarding Blackness?
109-14: the simulacra-are-life argument and the quick push to monetize.
115: “Appearance built over the fake…” The secret to becoming a millionaire.
116: using the simulacra in space. DADOES? prefiguring.
124: PKD’s sex, freezer of blood. pf.
145: she’s barely old enough for a bra, but “I don’t blame him; it’s her fault.” And the guy talking is her father.
153: ideas losing value on the way to development
155: Pris the “thing”
158: for the powerful, Law is a convenience
162: Maury (her dad) and Louis both alternate wrenchingly between detesting Pris and idolizing her.
165: wealth adoration
172: always lies to the psychiatrist
174: adulthood and professionalism mean hiding your feelings.
176: Louis (and Dick’s?) propensity for a hard right turn into “shitshow” (consistent with the hebephrenia template)
181: Pris is mine. I don’t care what she thinks.
210: “I have seen into the other…when I saw Pris.”
218: sudden appearance of Pris – delusion? You, betcha. The psychotic break.
220: the delusion passes
231: getting Freudy
176, 238: “catatonic urgency”
239: the thematic explanation for Louis Rosen’s covetous, misogynistic madness regarding Pris
243: “‘Do you love me?’ ‘Christ no!’ And yet I felt that she did.”
240 – end: Pris fugues. hallucinogenic-induced episodes of fantasies with Pris. Like a creepy interrogation, via 1984, yet genial.
251: “controlled regressions” to give cathartic release to “libido cravings.”
251: nope, another hallucination.
252: No! Pris IS there, but under her dad’s last name.
[the oscillation in madness]
253-4: the “real” Pris tells him how to get released from the mental health clinic.
255: in the next fugue, he hits imaginary Pris.
256: suddenly the Doctor is unsure if Louis was EVER sick, but just faking.
257: the sick “real” Pris fooled Louis. He’s released, but she’s not getting out for a long time.

About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Book Reviews, Books, Science Fiction, summer reading, uncanny valley and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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