Slapping this book over to read the backside blurbs, I was preemptively skeptical that David F. Dufty’s nonfiction chronicle on the conception, creation and odyssey of Philip K. Dick’s android likeness would appeal to Dick’s reader-base in theory, but find itself in a limbo where it would be heckled or embraced by anyone with enough interest in Philip K. Dick to judge its intentions and still crack it open.
And crack it open without much thought as to why. Much like the records of the much-loved and recently lost (such as MCA of the Beastie Boys, or less recently, Michael Jackson) death causes the sales of anyone with enough sales and still-living consumers to transcend this mortal atmosphere. Likewise I’ve been fearing since its announcement- and with the heavy buildup of his forthcoming biography hitting sites like the Millions and the New York Times with anything but a whisper- that all matter related to David Foster Wallace will become more tangible memorabilia and less the pre-mortem attention to the integrity of what’s being marketed. The polarization of fans on the very tired concept of “selling out” on these losses is based on a very real schematic- it’s not just limited to those of us who’ve ever sat down to watch Ozzy Osbourne mumble through an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” or seen an infomercial for some commemorative presidential plate.
These things are there to give us the false sense that these objects are there to connect us to the source, when we should be celebrating what these people have done for the rest of us not bickering over the inauthenticity of hastily-manufactured, unreasonably expensive boxed sets. This exploitation is real, but by now, us readers of such figureheads anticipate the nature of the money machine if only to dull the reminder of what genius was prematurely lost (and The Pale King was still an unfinished, tragic symphony for me, despite the recent Pulitzer fiction indecision).
And so the grotesqueness of Philip K. Dick’s lifelike face and mouth created in apparent tribute was something altogether different and shocking, and possessed more varied levels of digestibility than more expensive editions of his books. When video and headlines began circulating to announce that a roboticist had turned Dick’s long-deceased essence into an actualized tribute to his own science-fiction creations, I had the simultaneous the flinch reaction and jaw-drop that I had cutting into a worm in fourth grade science class to discover both halves still moved: something between automatic disgust and “wow, science is so completely cool!”
How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection (Henry Holt & Co., 2012) called to mind the problems I had years ago, when the headlines for the Bodyworlds exhibit tackled the same ethical questions about respect for the memory of the dead, the integrity of the body, and the exploit of the helpless without their ability to have a single word of say.
How to Build an Android is a similarly voyeuristic chronicle. Written somewhere between a Michael Crichton thriller and a detective novel, the book follows the sci-fi protagonist through his exploits with the intention of suspending the reader in anticipation of how this complicated and secretive cult-author-as-android business was done.
The inherent problem of this book is not the content (exciting as realizing a controversial robotic version of a long-dead historical figure can get stretched for as many pages) but instead finding yourself losing patience with the fact it’s not a Philip K. Dick novel. Like Dick, author David F. Dufty is not (and should not be) known for his ability to write prose. It’s not gracefully executed, and it fails to simulate the dystopian creations of its central subject. Dufty does give the hidden bricks of the story (our roboticist really does lose a robotic replica head in an airplane cabin) and leaves readers to create the plot points of this modern landscape where, twenty-three years after his death, we can somewhat “resurrect” the dead. He does this while using all the cliche modifiers and images one finds in sci-fi books, to the point where it collapses heavily into a parodic imitation of anything Dick wrote during his lifetime, and to the extent that any less successful genre writer might.
With science fiction books or films, I’ve always held the belief that you have to cling to the complete suspension of disbelief that writers and readers of realism like myself have a hard time seeing past to get an often-undelivered reward. Science fiction requires the creation of an entirely new world with its own set of rules, and most are understandably- and even rightfully- unable or unwilling to read the directions of the game, let alone play it. It’s the reason why such great things as chess, poetry, or non-American sports require more focus and commitment whereas most of us slough off for the work for something seemingly more instant-reward.
I’m not attempting to convert anyone, or get anyone to sit down and agree with the ways that Dick’s Ubik or even Criterion-approved science fiction films exist as other angles to see and understand basic human desires and fears. This book is for the already-converted. But even more so, it’s for those who want to read the footnotes, those who had the patience and energy and pervasive fire for reading essays on Infinite Jest after reading Infinite Jest. That patience and cult fanaticism is not common. In the case of pantheon occupants like Dick, you have to have been long-since indoctrinated into the cult and read the teachings.
And although “science is so completely cool!” I can report that I deferred to that fourth-grade space between visceral reactions as I held my breath to cut open this wormy book. Maybe I want more stories. Maybe I’m still in fourth grade.
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.