Science fiction and fantasy                                            

We Can Build You

by Philip K. Dick


Louis Rosen works for a firm selling pianos and electric organs. Thanks to advances in technology their products are fast becoming obsolete, and sales are rapidly falling off. So MASA Associates decide to build simulacra, or synthetic humans. It's a radical change for the firm.

We Can Build You is set in the early 1980s, but it's the 80s as imagined from an optimistic perspective in 1972. So people fly across America by rocket, musical instruments designed to directly and specifically effect the emotions are on sale, and there is a project under way to colonise the moon. But perhaps the biggest change to society is the new emphasis on mental health. Federal Mental Health Clinics are busy, with screening for mental health disorders for everyone, and compulsory attendance for anyone found to be mentally ill. One in four people spend some time in one of these institutions.

Pris Frauenzimmer is one such person. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she is on release and in remission when she helps to build one of the first simulacra, based on a historical person. The simulacra has all of the personality, appearance and memories of Edwin Stanton, a civil war era politician. Lifelike and able to hold a conversation, the artificial humans open up a lot of possibilities for the ailing company.

One of these possibilities is the opportunity to work with the millionaire Sam Barrows. But Barrows' plans for the simulacra are altogether less straightforward, and less ethical, than those of MASA Associates. Louis and his partner, Maury Rock, are thrown into disarray over which course they should take in order to stay in business. Barrows is a risk-taker, and in spite of his wealth he isn't the kind of man Louis or Maury had expected him to be.

To complicate matters further Louis develops a strange relationship with Pris, who also happens to be Maury's daughter. Pris is barely grown up, and she is an acid-tongued beauty with a complete disregard for anyone else's feelings. She is creative but detached from other people, and possibly as crazy as an ice fireplace.

At the start of We Can Build You it seems as though this novel will focus mainly on the consequences of creating artificial humans, or perhaps of resurrecting the past. Yet it only touches very lightly on the ethical issues involved and the possible ramifications. Could the simulacra make humans obsolete? Could copies be made of existing humans? You might expect this novel to deal with these and other similar questions, but it's just not that kind of story.

About two-thirds of the way in, the novel veers off on a tangent. Louis Rosen starts to exhibit erratic behaviour, and the plot changes course entirely. It is almost as though Philip K. Dick forgot what he was writing about, as the topic turns to madness and psychology, some of Dick's favourite themes. This change makes the book seem very disjointed. There are some connections between the simulacra and the mental state of some of the characters, but on the whole these connections are tenuous.

The ending turns out to be disappointing, in that there are quite a few issues left unresolved, and there is a jarring difference between the kind of story this promises to be at the beginning and the way the book ends. This isn't Philip K. Dick at his most coherent or inspired.

Book Details

Decade: 1970s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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This adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel depicts a man struggling with madness, paranoia and addiction in a near-future dystopia.

2 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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