The scene is a basement repair shop, 1982.
Work benches, tools, and a prone robotic simulacra of Abraham Lincoln, being turned on for the first time. In the presence of its makers, the Lincoln is slowly emerging from objecthood into the scrum of sentience. It flails to sit up, big hands grasping around, jet-black eyes beginning to survey their surroundings. Gears whirr and click. Suddenly, what was once a sculpted mask of a famous face begins to register wariness, a wariness “beyond the capacity of man to imagine.”
What follows is one of the bleakest, most quintessentially Philip K. Dick descriptions of consciousness imaginable, in which a version of Abraham Lincoln, uncertain of who (or what) he is, is born into a fully adult body. The humans in the room can sense his fear, recognizing in it some echo of their own wailing arrival on the scene, a rupture which for them is obfuscated by time, but, for the Lincoln, is immediate. Is happening now.
In its birth pangs, there in the repair shop, the Lincoln’s face registers fear, “absolute dread…Paralyzing dread so great as to produce apathy.” This is a primeval, atavistic fear, the horror of existence itself. And it isn’t just a scene. It’s a worldview. Dick defines the catalytic spark of life not as a simple evolutionary impulse to get up and go, a but dread so powerful that it singlehandedly bootstraps us onto the grid. A profound, crazy malaise that we spend our entire lives attenuating (in Dick’s case, with prolific literary output and Benzedrine). He writes,
“Birth…is not pleasant. It is worse than death; you can philosophize about death–and you probably will: everyone else has. But birth! There is no philosophizing, no easing of the condition. And the prognosis is terrible: all your actions and deeds will only embroil you further in living more deeply.”
Like all of Dick’s quote-unquote lesser novels, We Can Build You is a dark character study/grim think-piece only half-assedly sheathed by a pulp-magazine conceit. Nominally: about a company that builds simulacra of historical figures. Actually: about how social constraints can turn people into automatons, can turn them on the whole sociopathic. This is so classic a Dick trope it scarcely bears mentioning: perhaps, the novel suggests, in a certain context, a programmed being–a robotic Lincoln, for example–can be more human than its programmers.
The robotic Lincoln in this novel (incidentally: can a graduate student somewhere please pen the be-all dissertation about animatronic Lincoln, Disneyland’s Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, Ray Bradbury‘s delight with the form, and PKD’s various horrified interpretations? There’s definitely a lineage.), like the real Lincoln, might be schizophrenic. The tragic undertones of his character, anyway, his radically depressive tendencies, his melancholy: all traits attributed to the historical Lincoln which make for a particularly self-conscious robot. Unlike the simulacra of John Wilkes Booth or Edwin M. Stanton, he cannot adapt to the modern world, nor can he ever truly come to terms with his transmutation into mechanical existence. Like Dick himself, he’s already crazy enough to imagine he might not be real, so the whole thing takes on meta-proportions which only serve to kick him into a depressive tailspin.
The hallucinatory delusions of its largely schizophrenic characters eventually become so nesting and protracted that this novel ceases to be about robots altogether. Rather, it develops into a love story that unfolds across a gradient of sanity. This departure from plot seems to be the main criticism of We Can Build You. Theodore Sturgeon griped that Dick’s “willingness to pursue some collateral and fascinating line at the expense–and even the abandonment–of his central theme” diminished the novel.
Of course, that’s my favorite thing about PKD, his total lack of interest in central theme, the way his narrative arcs deflate at the sight of an interesting line of inquiry, an opportunity to zero in on some truly horrible truth. Anyway, I see the continuum. After all, whose subjective reality is realer: an automaton with a precisely created set of epistemological prerogatives, or a schizoid mid-fugue? What about a schizoid automaton? The point is that the simulacra’s operating constraints begin to take on a particular kind of broken humanness, as though the Lincoln were created solely to give concrete form to the horror of being. Through his birth, we re-experience our own. Some uncanny manifestation of our realest dread, doffed with a stovepipe hat.