Giant Apartments of Philip K Dick

I recently took a trip to New York City and was walking to the High Line when I was surprised to see an improbably immense apartment building.  Then I happened onto another, and another.  They were huge, each one consuming a NYC city block.  I'd never before seen anything like it, even when visiting communist countries like Czechoslovakia or East Germany.  The buildings were small mountains in the city, like something out of science fiction.  In fact, what they reminded me of most were the buildings in Philip K Dick novels.

In the movie Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation building is a huge pyramid in new LA, but in the book "Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep" the more shocking setting is the large empty decrepit apartment building where the fugitive androids meet John Isidore.  Most of Earth's population has emigrated off world, and only genetically damaged people like Isidore, who is a chickenhead, remain. They live in decaying apartment buildings meant for hundreds of people, now housing only a handful.  Blade Runner hints at this when it uses the Bradbury Building in LA as a stand-in for JF Sebastian's mostly empty apartment building.

Dick's early novels often had the protagonist struggling against oppressive buildings.  In "The Man Who Japed" the apartment committee is in charge of tracking moral offensives (such as missing a building committee meeting) and reporting the offenders to the government.  The hero, Purcell, subconsciously nonconforms by performing his japery, which only gets him into more trouble with the building.

The residents of the "great communal apartment building, The Abraham Lincoln" also have to deal with a heavy-handed governing committee in "The Simulacra," except in this case the committee also reviews tenant talent, and pits them against acts from other buildings in a competition weirdly reminiscent of Star Search or American Idol.  The winner of the local competition gets a chance to perform for the president of the US, "Der Alte", and first lady, the lovely Nicole.  People who don't supply talent for the competitions risk losing their apartments, and also their status as citizens.

In "The Penultimate Truth" the apartment buildings are almost a mirror of the image of the skyscrapers of the 20th century.  The elite Yance men live on large spacious estates, while most of the citizenry live in underground bunkers, ignorant of the true mechanics of their government. One of the sub-plots is the power struggle between the Yance-men and a free agent called Louis Runcible who builds apartment buildings for the occasional refugees that manage to escape to the surface.  The penultimate truth is that people have been tricked into believing that they want to live with security, at the cost of their freedom.

In "Martian Time-slip," the oppressive building is planned by the United Nations as part of Earth's colonization of the red planet. The complex will be called "AM-WEB", a contraction of the German phrase "Alle Menschen werden BrĂ¼der" (All men become brothers) from Schiller's An die Freude (Ode to Joy).

Meanwhile, Manfred Steiner is an autistic boy living on Mars. It is said that he can predict the future.  But Manfred's greatest fear is a future that only he can see.  Mars is derelict and the AM-WEB is a dumping ground for forgotten people like him, where he will eventually be confined as a decrepit old man to a bed on life-support. I've read enough PKD to believe that AM-WEB is a reference to the German concentration camp slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work will set you free). But, it's unclear whether PKD means AM-WEB to be an allusion to the Nazi concentration camps, or whether it is a metaphor for the fear of schizophrenia.  The feeling of despair is there regardless.

In many of the novels the buildings are ominously present, but passive.  Two of PKD's works have buildings that play active parts in the plot.  The killer building in "A Maze of Death" first appears a tiny model, but then grows into full-sized structure which appears to the colonists on Delmak-O.  Something is written above the entry to the building, and each person each perceives the words to mean what they most hope or fear. One person sees WINERY, another reads WITCHERY, and one character interprets the word as HIPPERY HOPPERY, a place where they have people hop onto animals for “youknowhwat.”  The building has permeated both their consciousness and subconscious mind, representing their hopes and fears.

In a similar way, Heldscalla, a mystical cathedral embedded on the ocean floor of Plowman’s Planet in "The Galactic Pot-Healer" also represents hope, but it speaks to faith.  An omnipotent being, the Glimmung, gathers a group of artisans and craftsmen from Earth to help raise the sunken cathedral.  Each person has their part to play in the project, but as they proceed they learn there's a black Glimmung and a counterpart black cathedral also lurking under the sea.  The team begins to wonder whether they are working on the right side, and whether the project is even possible.  The obvious religious quandaries become even more frustrating when mixed with an unhealthy dash of Dick's paranoia.

In all these novels, the buildings are institutions: a hospital, the government, a church, a bygone way of life, a mental institution. They reek of the impassive face of authority. In all of Dick's stories he obviously preferred people over institutions.

Can we find the roots of this theme of the impassive building vs the all-too-human protagonist?  When Dick was in high school in the mid-1940s he underwent intensive psychiatric treatment for agoraphobia and other psychological troubles.  He wasn't institutionalized, but perhaps he felt a building would be a good metaphor for this combination of school and therapy, or for any authority figure.  Regardless of the source, it seems an apt image: the human against a faceless, massive, stone edifice, something that we think of as permanent.

In the end, PKD was all about humanizing his characters. Bringing a massive story such as colonizing Mars, World War III, or the corruption of the US government down to a personal level: a boy in a hospital, a man trying to find lifesaving supplies for a friend, or two guys who just want to get the jug band back together.  At that's what all good science fiction is about, taking the amazing and larger than life, and asking how does this affect me?

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