Sunday, September 28, 2014

We Can Build You (1962)

For the most part Philip K. Dick novels do not fall into the realm of "hard" (i.e., technically plausible) science fiction, which is one of the first things I noticed about We Can Build You. It's full of the usual preoccupations with schizophrenia and epidemics of mental illness, including a US governmental agency called the Federal Bureau of Mental Health (FBMH) that manages a national system of treatment and facilities. It's a bit totalitarian, to say the least, but also weirdly good-hearted. But the main feature of We Can Build You, I think everyone agrees, is the appearance of a deeply sophisticated Abraham Lincoln robot, whipped up in their spare time by a schizophrenic teen girl and an engineer at a manufacturer that produces electronic organs and other musical instruments. Never mind how preposterous it is. Dig, rather, the eerie gravitas this classic figure of Lincoln brings to a Dick novel. Partly it is the result of the reactions of the other characters, who instinctively address him as "Mr. President" (or simply faint, in one notably overplayed scene). Partly it is because Dick seems to have Lincoln basically right—or anyway in line with Henry Fonda's version in the 1939 John Ford movie, Young Mr. Lincoln. Dick seems preternaturally comfortable with our secular martyred national saint, fluidly touching all the familiar notes: his physical stature, his gloominess, his silly but endearing wit, his aching loneliness (this incarnation was seen most recently, of course, by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 2012 Spielberg movie). I went back and had another look at Young Mr. Lincoln just to make sure, and I have to think Dick was well aware of the movie as he wrote (in 1962, though the novel did not actually see light of day until 1969, serialized in a magazine, and was not published as a book until 1972). It is a typical bunch of Dick's anomic disaffected rubbing shoulders and having strange conversations about their strange ambitions and the strange ways they go about realizing them. It's set in Boise and Seattle, mostly. Dick loved the American West, that's plain. But with the Lincoln figure it is the first sense I get of him as an American writer, and citizen, so to speak. The US felt more like a canvas he was painting on in The Man in the High Castle. In We Can Build You—and this is perhaps the biggest surprise I've encountered yet reading Dick, which is saying something—we find a writer with a strong sense of American identity, no simple patriot or rejecting anti-patriot or (what I probably expected) oblivious apathist, but rather someone who lived in this country and understood very well our most profound and intractable complexities. We know this because he understands so obviously well how Abraham Lincoln represented them, or at least some mass shared historical perception of them, and how he continues to embody them somehow even if only in his caricatured $5 bill affect, as Dick is implicitly arguing, carried into a vision of the future that is reasonably plausible in terms of its psychodynamics. The last thing I ever expected. Not to be missed.

In case it's not at the library.

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