By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ is one of Philip K. Dick’s best-known short stories. Perhaps only ‘The Minority Report’ (which, like ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’, was adapted for the big screen) is more famous.
The story was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in April 1966 and has been adapted for film not once but twice: the 1990 film Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and the 2012 remake (with the same title) with Colin Farrell in the lead role.
The plot of ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ can be summarised as follows. (Beware that this plot summary will contain spoilers.) In Chicago in the near future, Douglas Quail has a dull job and longs to visit Mars. He knows he probably never will be able to go (such trips are possible, but cost a lot of money). So he writes to a company, Rekal, Inc., which can implant false memories into your brain which convince you that you really have been somewhere you haven’t.
He goes to the headquarters of Rekal, and meets McClane, who explains that his company offers Quail the opportunity to live out two fantasies at once: the dream of going to Mars and Quail’s longing for adventure and to live a more exciting life than the one he actually leads. He can be given an identity as a secret agent who has been sent to Mars on a special mission.
Once these false memories have been implanted, Quail won’t believe they’re false: he’ll have no memory of going to Rekal and will instead be convinced he actually did go to Mars on some sort of important mission. Indeed, McClane tells him that the false memories implanted by Rekal are even better than a literal trip to Mars, since the false memories won’t fade, unlike our memories of real experiences.
The problem is that, when Rekal start to implant Quail’s false memory, they awaken a real memory of a trip to Mars Quail actually took – a trip he has completely forgotten about, since the memory of it was erased so he couldn’t tell anyone about the top-secret business he was on. All that lingered was a longing to visit Mars. But Quail had actually been to Mars and worked as a special agent.
Rekal halt the implant process, refund Quail half his money, and bundle him into a robot cab, which takes him home. When he gets there, his wife tells him she is leaving him because he insists on questioning her about Mars: did he really go there? Then, two agents from Interplan (short for ‘Interplanetary’, presumably) show up in Quail’s conapt and say they will have to kill him because he is remembering stuff he shouldn’t know about.
But they offer him an alternative: to undergo another false memory implant at Rekal, which will overwrite his real memories of Mars and his secret mission. He agrees to this (after all, the alternative isn’t exactly appealing), and Rekal decide to implant a memory based on Quail’s childhood dream of meeting small aliens who had landed on Earth with the intention of invading and colonising the world, but who decide against such a plan when they experience the boy Quail’s kindness towards them.
But the only problem is: this is no false memory either, and as they are implanting it, they realise that Quail did indeed save the world from alien invasion when he showed tolerance and acceptance towards some would-be invaders.
‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ was turned into the film (or films) Total Recall, although only the central premise and opening act of the films bear any resemblance to Dick’s tale. Dick was writing a short story, not a blockbuster action thriller, but it’s his central idea which makes the 1990 Paul Verhoeven film, in particular, so interesting.
The story’s themes can best be described as follows: the nature of memory versus reality and the appeal of fantasy over reality. One of the reasons ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ is one of Dick’s most thought-provoking stories is that it invites us to ask some big questions. If we could be given the memory of another life – a life more exciting than the one we live – and we would be convinced that the memory was of genuine experiences, would we take it? Would you? And can we really be sure that we are not living through some false memory, or false reality, right now?
This last is obviously a key theme of much of Philip K. Dick’s work. But equally important to the story is Quail’s two false memories, which in fact turn out not to be false at all. One is focused on the self, on wish-fulfilment of the crudest and most self-centred kind: Quail wishes to live out adolescent fantasies of being a secret agent who can go around blasting away enemies and performing all sorts of heroics in an exotic location. If he’d been a Victorian, he’d probably be some lowly clerk longing to become an explorer through the deepest heart of Africa, in the mould of a David Livingstone or Sir Richard Burton.
But the second memory, which goes back to before adolescence and to his more innocent childhood, is centred on kindness and empathy towards others. True, he only agrees to be implanted with what he believes to be the false memory of saving the world because it’ll make him feel significant; but his secret-agent identity, real or not, is a less affirmative and positive memory than his childhood encounter with the rodent-like aliens. In both, he ‘saves the world’, but one vision is less glamorous and sexy (and more inadvertent) than the other.
In the film, Douglas Quail’s surname becomes Quaid, presumably because you couldn’t very well have musclebound Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a character with such a feebly comic name as ‘Quail’. But Philip K. Dick’s fiction is filled with faintly pathetic and insignificant little men who are thrown into extraordinary situations. ‘Quail’ – not only similar to the chicken, a byword for cowardice, but a small bird – is the quintessential Dick protagonist.