We Can Rebuild Him

David Dufty's Exploration into Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection

by Brendan Boyle

6 August 2013

Dufty could take most tech writers to school with his lucid prose that maintains an even tone while reducing hopelessly intricate subjects to their core concepts.
 
cover art

How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection

David Dufty

(Picador Science)
US: Jun 2013

The difference between David Dufty and Philip K. Dick can first be glimpsed right there on the cover: when Dufty promises to inform readers “How to Build an Android”, unlike asking about electric sheep or policemen’s tears, he isn’t being coy, cagey or even philosophical. The story of How to Build an Android walks its readers through the steps involved, even as it radically simplifies them to both illuminate and demystify the process of an initiative that was as forward-thinking as it was difficult to believe. This is one book that could be read by its cover.

In opening chapters that contain some of Dufty’s relatively few stylistic missteps (an unnecessary focus on his own role in the story, an unfortunate slip into present-tense narration), readers arrive at the conclusion of roboticist David Hanson’s story, when he loses the talking head of a Philip K. Dick android on a plane to San Francisco. The head, it turns out, was the key to the whole enterprise, a strange obsession born of two scientists’ (Hanson and his colleague Andrew Olney, the author of the android’s particular A.I. system) dual passions for complementary fields. (In writing this review, the significance of Dufty’s lone pop culture motif, the Talking Heads, finally occurred to me, but the wordplay’s all there is.)

A warning for fans of the sci-fi master: if you already know about the project, there’s little PKD insight to be had in Dufty’s book aside from a few fragments of his interview responses that become repurposed words in the mouth of the android. Dufty’s not attempting to frame the story as a Dick-ish narrative, or to emulate his prose style. He builds the narrative simply, working in discussions of Dick’s stories and novels, as well as the fandom devoted to his work which sprang up within the Institute for Intelligent Systems where both Olney and Hanson worked.

The unadorned writing, it should be stressed, is a good thing. Dufty could take most tech writers to school with his lucid prose that maintains an even tone while reducing hopelessly intricate subjects to their core concepts, and relating them with restrained if obvious enthusiasm. At its best, his book compellingly illustrates the concept of the Dick android as a “robotic portrait”, an intersection of research, innovation, homage, and art.

It helps to understand Hanson’s reluctance to respond positively to the most-frequently-asked question after his loss of the head: why not start again? To him, the android was an irreplaceable incarnation of itself, and its eventual disappearance only lends further credence to the idea of the project as essentially ephemeral.

As a book that deals thoroughly with abstract discussions of robotics, artificial intelligence, philosophy, and Dick’s own stories and themes, Dufty runs a serious risk of losing his grasp on the humans involved in this story. Too often a paragraph on Hanson or Olney’s motivations will spiral into discursive, if informative musings on the relationships between the project itself and DIck’s work, ending most chapters with a neat point that exists independently of the characters at the heart of Dufty’s story.

The later chapters offer more of a storytelling kick, as with the humiliating and hilarious Comic-Con sequence that sees an ill-prepared Hanson struggling to improvise with the malfunctioning robot while, in the audience, Dick’s horrified daughters watch the image of their father spiral into a motormouthing frenzy. Not a sight most children would want to behold—not that any others have.

One of the more interesting notions in the whole narrative comes courtesy of Tommy Pallotta, producer of the rotoscoped Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, for which the android’s services were eventually enlisted on the promotional circuit. Pallotta, Dufty asserts, was crucial in swaying the opinion of Dick’s surviving heirs to allow the android project to succeed, suggesting that their father might even have wanted to end up as a robot.

It’s in this dimension, the project as an un/natural extension of Dick’s body of work, that Dufty’s writing gains a certain poignancy. As characters, Hanson and Olney are driven by their own personal histories and motivations that brought them to the Dick project, yet no matter how artistically motivated their portrait may be, it can only pale alongside the truly overwhelming significance of Dick’s contribution to literature.

Without a deeper sense of them as humans or the project’s impact on their respective fields, though, Dufty’s book concludes as an amusing trifle even with its many virtues. The vague, anecdotal epilogue hardly helps. Straightforward and frank, How to Build an Android delivers on the promise of its title but not much else—if only because the written word more naturally lends stories such as this one a degree of modesty. Maybe it’s a movie.

How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection

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