Philip K. Dick’s We Can Build You is a Cyrano de Bergerac story. The two lovers are schizophrenics, and the part of Cyrano is played by a robotic replica of Abraham Lincoln. It is the only novel ever written to feature the sentence, “I’m talking to Abraham Lincoln and finding out how to end our relationship forever.”
Written around the Civil War centennial in 1962, We Can Build You is not quite cyberpunk. Lincoln isn’t quite as cool as replicant Rachael in Blade Runner, and our narrator Louis Rosen is definitely no Harrison Ford. He’s an aging schmoe in a near-future world who works for a piano manufacturer that takes a detour into the replica business. Their idea: Civil War replicas! Beginning by recreating Lincoln’s grouchy but dutiful Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, the company then shoot the moon by resurrecting Lincoln himself. But they can’t find a market for their Civil War roleplay, and Rosen falls in love with Pris Frauenzimmer, the schizophrenic and sociopathic teenage designer of the replicas, and one of the nastier entries in Dick’s long line of ice queens.
Somehow, Lincoln becomes Rosen’s legal counsel, personal guide, and life coach. The president’s famed wisdom and savvy are there, but Dick brings him into the novel only to then almost entirely ignore race, history, and politics. Who on earth is this Abraham Lincoln?
In fact, he is an Abraham Lincoln who illuminates our Abraham Lincoln, the one we read about on President’s Day and watch in Steven Spielberg movies. Abraham Lincoln has loomed so large for so long in the American imagination that he’s like the Mona Lisa: you cannot look at him fresh. The greatest president, the greatest American, the freer of the slaves: he is as much a legend as Ulysses or Batman—and equally variable. The passive and distant Lincoln of David Herbert Donald’s classic biography is a far ways from Daniel Day-Lewis’s noble stalwart in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and Gore Vidal’s ruthless and constipated Lincoln is far away from either of those. Dick’s version of Lincoln may be as unreal as any, but it is unique.
This is a bizarre, dual portrait of Lincoln: the great man reduced to a dating coach and business lawyer. Dick had been reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln, and pick out the bits closest to his own psyche, particularly Lincoln’s ironic perversity and his melancholy. More than that, Dick pulls Lincoln out of history and puts him into what feels less like the future and more like everyday reality. This Lincoln spends time reading Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan. He is brilliant, but fragile. And as a replicant, he has little will of his own.
Lincoln was notoriously fatalistic: he saw himself as pressed upon by history’s forces. He wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Yet he clearly felt pressed into greatness. The Lincoln of We Can Build You is pressed into mundanity, and he accepts it with equanimity.
So this Lincoln advises Rosen through his tortured and ultimately doomed infatuation with Pris. Rosen reads of Lincoln’s own severe breakdown in 1841, an acute moment of his lifelong clinical depression.
I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.
This passage deeply strikes Rosen, as it undoubtedly did Dick himself. So when Rosen is debating whether to go to war against Pris’s lover, the Elon Musk-like entrepreneur and moon colonist Sam Barrows, the Lincoln replica is eerily in tune with Rosen’s motives and emotions. And Lincoln approves of them:
“Pris is the woman whom you love. Is that not the actual fact of the matter? What is there in the world more important to you? Wouldn’t you stake your life in this contest? I think you have already, and perhaps, if Maury is correct, the lives of others….Then that is what you must consider, not whether it is properly serious to others or not. I think it would be inhuman to retire to a world of rent-values, as Mr. Barrows will do. Is it not the truth that he stands opposite you, Louis? You will succeed precisely on that point: that to him his feeling for Miss Pris is not serious...To you, the person you love matters over everything else, and I do think you are right and he wrong.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You know, you certainly have a deep understanding of what the proper values in life are; I have to hand it to you. I’ve met a lot of people but I mean, you go right to the core of things.”
The simulacrum reached out and patted me on the shoulder. “I think there is a bond between us, Louis. You and I have much in common.”
“I know,” I said. “We’re alike.”
We were both deeply moved.
It is a strange passage, almost Lincoln fan fiction, and all the more bizarre for analogizing a love triangle with the Civil War itself. But Dick’s fiction works more generally by collapsing great and small. Here, the divisions of lovers, of the schizophrenic mind, and of the United States are all variations on the same kind of breakdown of reality.
Lincoln’s role in all of this is to provide that beacon in the dark. The choice to “die or be better” was one he made for himself in 1841, and for the country in 1861. Dick brought him back to do it one more time, on behalf of Dick’s own fictional stand-in.
In the Star Trek episode “The Savage Curtain,” a resurrected Abraham Lincoln fights Genghis Khan so that a sentient alien rock can see which is stronger, good or evil. (Spoiler: Lincoln takes a spear to the back and dies.) Episode writer and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has Captain Kirk muse, “I cannot conceive it possible that Abraham Lincoln could have actually been reincarnated. And yet his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humour, everything about him is so right.” How would he know? Kirk (and, more to the point, Roddenberry) never met Lincoln; he’s comparing the replica to the legend, not the man.
The brilliance of We Can Build You is in taking a legendary icon and displacing him so drastically that we realize how much what remains of him is simply a reflection of ourselves. The legacy of Lincoln lies in our ability to retain Lincoln’s best traits and repair his flaws. To take him for granted, to see him as a fixed part of the past, is merely to celebrate our own shadow.
In We Can Build You, Lincoln becomes Rosen’s best self. It’s not a profound or a life-changing self, but he serves his purpose: to provide a positive point of identification for Rosen, and ease his loneliness and alienation. He’s not human, just a replica, but he’s enough of a human, imperfect Lincoln to embody W. E. B. DuBois’s hope for how we should try to see Lincoln:
At the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent—cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves...I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.
Rosen is one of the mediocre. His image of Lincoln betters him. If we don’t forget how skewed our image of Lincoln is, that image may still better us.