We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick

by James Wallace Harris, 2/9/22

My intended fifth book to read for 2022 was Humankind, a hopeful reappraisal of humanity by Rutger Bregman. However, during the ice storm, I didn’t feel like reading serious nonfiction while the power was out. For some strange reason I was in the mood for Philip K. Dick (PKD) and I randomly picked We Can Build You. I listened to it on audio, and it was wonderfully narrated by Dan Jon Miller.

PKD wrote We Can Build You in 1962 calling it The First in Our Family while it was a working manuscript. It was rejected by his publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, who had just put out The Man in the High Castle, and by several other publishers until Ted White bought it for Amazing Stories in 1969. White claimed the novel needed an ending, which White wrote with Dick’s permission. It was retitled A. Lincoln, Simulacrum and ran in the November 1969 and January 1970 issues. This is when I first read this novel. After that Donald Wollheim, who had rejected it for Ace Paperbacks, reconsidered the novel and published it for his new company DAW in 1972, but without the Ted White final chapter.

Before I digress, and I will digress all over the place, just let me say that Philip K. Dick is one of a handful of writers I obsess over. I’ve written about these writers before in my essay “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” I’ve read many biographies about PKD, and even reviewed them as a group. And I’ve recently started reading his collected letters (I have 5 of the 6 volumes). I’m not the only one obsessed with PKD. Dick is known for writing science fiction, and he’s probably one of the most filmed of all science fiction authors. However, PKD was a troubled soul, and he often used his books and stories to explore his own psychological problems. We Can Build You is one such book.

Readers will find many stories to follow within We Can Build You. One is about Louis Rosen, a partner in a firm that sells organs and spinet pianos. Louis falls in love with his partner’s daughter, Pris Frauenzimmer, who is schizophrenic, and only 18. Louis is 33. Over the course of the novel, Louis also becomes schizophrenic. In 1962, PKD was around 33. At the time PKD wrote this novel he was married to his third wife, Anne. There is evidence that We Can Build You is somewhat biographical to PKD’s life in 1962 and is a reaction to a troubled marriage with Anne and his own psychological problems. Was there another woman? Or is Pris modeled on Anne?

Anne was an atypical PDK wife (he had five in all). Anne was a year older than Phil, and she was blonde. Dick had a neurotic obsession with dark-haired young women, and Pris Frauenzimmer, the love interest in We Can Build You is eighteen and dark-haired. Makes you wonder.

I’m giving all this information as a kind of warning. We Can Build You can be read without knowing anything about Philip K. Dick’s life. For some, especially readers who enjoy outre science fiction but don’t know PKD’s work, it will be a reasonably entertaining story, although one that will strike them as quite odd even for the outre. For fans of PKD who only read his fiction, it will even be one of the better novels, but far from his best. But, if you happen to be a Dickhead, this book offers all kinds of delicious mysteries about the bizarre and tragic life of Philip K. Dick.

Some Dickheads consider We Can Build You as a trial run for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It certainly focuses on two of PKD’s favorite themes: What is human? and What is Real? It’s also about insanity, a theme that runs throughout many of his stories. But it’s mainly about Dick’s obsession with young dark-haired girls, one that’s gotten its own nonfiction book. Dick was born with a twin sister who didn’t live long, and he claimed that affected him for the rest of his life.

The first edition of We Can Build You in 1972 has a dedication that reads: “For Kathy Demuelle, my best friend, Mea voluptas, meae deliciae, mea vita, mea amoenitas …” Google translated that Latin for me as: “my pleasure, my darling, my life, my attractions.” This was written at the end of his marriage to his fourth wife Nancy and before he married Tessa, his fifth and final wife. These wives were barely legal for a man in his forties to marry. Dick’s published collected letters do contain letters to Kathy, and she is described in a letter to another young woman in this 1974 letter:

Kathy sounds just like Pris. But I don’t think Pris is based on Kathy. I don’t know when he met her. I need the first volume of the collected letters which I don’t have, and they are now sky high to buy used. The above letter does give us many clues as why PKD wrote We Can Build You.

However, after We Can Build You was published, Kathy evidently ghosted Phil, and he wrote Donald Wollheim asking for the dedication to be changed to Robert and Ginny Heinlein, which it is in later editions. Heinlein had out of the blue sent PKD money for medical expenses, and PKD was very moved. The early 1970s were a particularly bad time for Dick, who had suicide attempts, an escape to Canada, and had spent time in rehabs. PKD was agoraphobic but hated living alone, and often invited anyone who would, to live with him. And sometimes these were not very nice people, and sometimes they were very young dark-haired girls.

Knowing all of this should help us understand the protagonist of We Can Build You, Louis Rosen. But it’s also important to understand the major theme of mental illness and psychiatry in We Can Build You comes from a 1962 PKD, and not the 1972 PKD. Knowing the difference helps us to realize that the novel is about PKD then, but it prophesied the PKD to come.

Here’s the thing. Most readers think stories by Philip K. Dick are science fiction, but if you’re a Dickhead you realize they’re about PKD. Phil started out writing science fiction, but after he married Anne he wrote almost a dozen mainstream novels he couldn’t sell. Dick wanted to become an important writer and to support a wife that wanted that kind of success. At the beginning of the 1960s, PKD understood that wasn’t going to happen and returned his focus to writing science fiction. That’s when he published his masterpiece The Man in the High Castle in 1962. It was then PKD got the idea to blend mainstream fiction and science fiction and wrote We Can Build You.

The science-fictional elements of We Can Build You deal with building androids. The two main ones are Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. Each android is programmed with all the biographical knowledge we have for each man. They look completely human and act like they have been reincarnated. Although they become fascinating characters integral to the story, they aren’t the important part of the story.

The novel is really a bizarre love story. Louis loves Pris, but she doesn’t love him. She is cold, cruel, and indifferent. Pris is ambitious and convives to get Sam Burrows a tech billionaire that reminded me of Elon Musk. Pris doesn’t love anyone but knows Burrows can get her what she wants. This drives Louis insane and he goes to extreme measures to take Pris from Burrows. The last third of the book is Louis undergoing therapy after having a psychotic breakdown. PKD was not the kind of man women would want, and it’s surprising he found five wives. I believe this novel conveys PKD’s frustration with his search for a woman that could make him sane and whole.

The published novel has a mainstream novel ending. Ted White wrote a science fictional ending for the magazine serialization. You can read it here, starting with the heading “nineteen.” I actually like White’s ending, but not as an ending for We Can Build You. I like it because it encapsulates how many science fiction fans think of PKD’s stories. I think they are wrong. Of course, I think I’m right in seeing PKD differently, but then I could be wrong. Reading PKD always makes you doubt everything.

Ted White’s final chapter is written knowing all of Dick’s novels from the 1960s, and White completely misses the mainstream aspects of the We Can Build You and writes a bogus PKD ending. It’s an ending that science fiction fans expect, one that falsely assumes what they think PKD is saying in the book. The ending is as different as the theatrical release of Blade Runner and Riddley’s Scott’s ending in the director’s cut. I hate Scott’s interpretation, and it’s funny that Ted White wants to use the same twist. It only goes to show you how wrong both were about Philip K. Dick.

The funny thing is I remembered White’s ending from reading it in 1970, so all the while I was listening to We Can Build You I was expecting that ending. However, I never once found any support for it.

In an April 18, 1974 letter to Claudia K. Bush, PKD tells her his favorite of his own novels are:

  • Martian Time Slip
  • We Can Build You
  • Flow My Tears
  • Doctor Bloodmoney
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • The Simulcra
  • The Penultimate Truth

I don’t know if he intended that list to be in order, but We Can Build You came second to mind. He even mentions in the same letter that he wasn’t sure he liked Ubik. Nor does he mention any of his unpublished mainstream novels.

Additional Reading and References

Within We Can Build You Pris works on bathroom mosaic. It turns out Anne, Dick’s third wife, created such a mosaic, while he was writing the novel.

JWH

22 thoughts on “We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick”

  1. Great post, thanks. I recently read Our Friends From Frolix 8, and oh boy does Dick’s life intrude there too. The main character is a guy in his 30s who gets obsessed about a 16 year old black-haired girl and he leaves his “shrew” wife for her. It is honestly a bit gross. The girl is a wild one.

    1. That’s interesting. In We Can Build You there are several places in the plot where the men are threatened by Pris being underaged. But her age is mentioned as 18 in several places too. I wonder if she was under 18 in PKD’s manuscript, and the publisher changed it to 18.

        1. Both Loius and Sam are warned Pris is underage, but then her age in other places is given at 18. That’s why I think this novel is like Our Friends, and Pris should have been underage too.

    1. That is one of his best novels. He also becomes disconsolate because he loses the woman Mali to Glimmung, but puts all of his angst into making the pot. As he realises, “the pot was awful”.

    2. That is one of his best novels. He also becomes disconsolate because he loses his woman Mali to Glimmung, but puts all of his angst into making the pot. As he realises, “the pot was awful”.

  2. This is an excellent post. I see that you’ve read Evan Lampe’s “We Are All Mentally Ill” post about it, so I assume you read my comments concerning it, including about “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” being a rewrite of “We Can Build You”, with which he disagreed. If you did, you’ll know that I said he was right, because he says that unlike “We Can Build You”, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” deals with empathy as it’s core theme, which of course is correct. You’ll probably also remember that I said his short story “The Little Black Box” was the seed for it, because of it’s introduces the empathy theme and Wilber Mercer.

    I suppose many great authors use their fiction to explore their personal lives, and Dick is no exception, but probably nobody has ever used the science fiction genre to the extent he has to do it. By doing so though, he extended it’s limits and transformed it. “We Can Build You” is I think a flawless novel in composition, but was also experimental in trying to blend science fiction with general fiction, so it’s not surprising it was flawed. It’s can’t be compared to his other excellent novels written about the same time, “The Man in the High Castle”, “Martian Time-Slip” and “Dr. Bloodmoney”. “Time Out of Joint” was much more successful in fusing the two different fictional realms, because of it’s mystery and uncertainty concerning ordinary existence.

    1. I didn’t read the comments and need to go back and read them. I agree, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is about empathy. The focus of the story was about humans that acted like robots, with no empathy. That’s where Blade Runner got the story wrong, which emphasized robots that acted like humans with empathy. Dick wasn’t concerned with androids or robots, he was concerned with people, and people being inhuman. He was telling readers don’t act like a machine. He was using machines as a symbol for everything bad about people. Whereas Blade Runner asks us to believe machines can be just as human as we are, which is a different topic. It’s a fine subject, just not what PKD was exploring in his book.

      I agree, We Can Build You is not as successful as those other novels, but it’s still quite good. I haven’t read Dr. Bloodmoney. I need to do that soon.

      1. I see, thank you, I look forward to hearing what you thought about them. I wrote them several years ago, but what I said about the origin of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” still stands. I can’t disagree with anything you say about it above. The book and the film are really entirely different stories, they can’t be compared, but of course there would have been no film without the book.

        I’m surprised you haven’t read “Dr. Bloodmoney”, it’s great. The only one of his SF novels I haven’t read, is “Dr. Futurity”. “We Can Build You” is good because he attempted more in that one, which is why it isn’t so successful.

    2. Dear James,

      I concur with you with respect to Philip K Dick. I also concur with the comments of your other readers, including those of Richard Fahey.

      Thank you for your impassioned revelation of your interests and thoughts here and elsewhere. As an independent writer, academic researcher, artist, musician and composer, I am also interested in many of the domains that you have mentioned. In Philip K Dick, I really like some of his advanced and thought-provoking ideas in his books. The issues and implications of “The Machine” are very multifaceted and complex. In a very palpable way, the movie “Blade Runner” has posted some sobering questions and possible scenarios.

      In turbo-charging our vision and dream of the cybernatically enhanced existence in the near future, there are many things to ponder. For example, I would like to consider not only sensory enhancement but also the quality and longevity of lives, and not just human lives. Each year, so many trees are logged and made into Christmas trees for decoration, and so many fresh flowers are cut only to fade within days or weeks. I simply resort to decorating, once and for all and as best as I can, a small artificial tree, which I keep using year after year. For the same reason, I have a lot of life-like artificial plants, flowers and leaves indoors and they could last for decades as opposed to having real flowers lasting just a few days. Could we have perpetually living artificial plants and animals so that some of us don’t have to bid farewell to short-lived pets and plants as they age and pass away?

      Similarly, I really wish that I could have some “artificial” but sentient humans or robots too, something like Commander Data, the Bicentennial Man, Rachel in Blade Runner, or other advanced automata as seen in Sci-Fi movies, as long as they are free of the usual human frailties, follies, deceptions and irrationality, if not immortality. Alternatively, some benign, benevolent and understanding extra-terrestrials could be even more desirable, and could present the chance and means for intergalactic or even interuniverse travel, thus ending, transforming and transcending my meagre earth-bound, dust-to-dust ephemeral existence.

      I have entertained some highly plausible dystopian scenarios with significant risks for the future of humanity. In addition, I often explore the intersections of art and science, of public and private spaces, of the cultural and the technological. Whilst I concede that technology offers enormous unexplored potential allowing emerging artists to express themselves in unprecedented ways, I do have certain concerns and caveats regarding science “reproducing” reality and artists representing it. In a special post, I have endeavoured to give a very good inkling of the kind of society that humans might be heading towards. Looking into the future, here is an entry in my sociology, philosophical anthropology and cultural history journal entitled “🎧 Facing the Noise & Music: Playgrounds for Biophobic Citizens 🏗🌁🗼“, published at

      https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/facing-the-noise-music-playgrounds-for-biophobic-citizens/

      Pushing forward another 50 years or (much) less, we could indeed end up in the scenario as described in my said post. As you can discover in the said post, there will be plenty of far-reaching ramifications in multiple domains of human life, some of which are irreversible. Should you decide to peruse my said post, I look forward to reading your feedback there. The post takes the perspective of sociology, philosophical anthropology and cultural history.

      A new season has just arrived. Wishing you and Richard Fahey a productive weekend and a wonderful March doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most, whether aesthetically, physically, intellectually or spiritually!

      Take care and prosper!

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

      1. It’s interesting that you are concerned with the longevity of plants and animals. I think compassion for other life forms was a significant factor with PKD. I watch a lot of YouTube videos about animals and I’m starting to see more and more consciousness in them. Have you read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllenben?

        1. Dear James,

          Thank you for your reply. I have not read Peter Wohlleben’s book entitled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World of 2016.

          There is a newer book entitled The Story of Trees and How They Changed the Way We Live by Kevin Hobbs and David West, published by Laurence King Publishing Ltd in 2020.

          It seems that writing an excellent novel about trees could garner an author the highest literary accolade. An example from Wikipedia:

          The Overstory is a novel by Richard Powers published in 2018 by W.W. Norton. It is Powers’ twelfth novel. The novel is about nine Americans whose unique life experiences with trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests. Powers was inspired to write the work while teaching at Stanford University after he encountered giant redwood trees for the first time. On 20 September 2018, The Overstory was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

          On 15 April 2019, it was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

          As far as I can remember, the book was also featured on PBS in early November 2019, where the author was interviewed.

          Here is the interview:

          Yours sincerely,
          SoundEagle

        2. Dear James,

          I look forward to your visiting my aforementioned post entitled “🎧 Facing the Noise & Music: Playgrounds for Biophobic Citizens 🏗🌁🗼” and to reading your thoughts and feedback on the various issues broached there. By the way, whenever you visit my blog, I would like to recommend using a desktop or laptop computer with a large screen to view the rich multimedia contents available for heightening your multisensory enjoyment at my blog, which could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately.

          Yours sincerely,
          SoundEagle

  3. See Severn House; page 126 to 127.
    There is only one character who is real. Everything is inside the mad house.
    That why I believe PKD regards highly this novel, this; reflection of his soul.

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