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Total Recall is the book of the film (the first one, not the second one) of the short story by Philip K. Dick. It’s bad in the same way that the film is bad; its badness is a virtue. If it was well written, it wouldn’t be as much fun.
The badness starts from the off. The opening paragraph:
“Two moons hung in the dark red sky. One was full, the other crescent. One seemed to be four times the diameter of the other, and neither was exactly round.”
He could have left it there, but no, we have…
“In fact, both might better have been described as egglike: a chicken egg and a robin egg.”
The thing most people know about a robin egg is that it’s blue and neither one of Mars’ moons is blue, but the salient fact here is (I imagine) that it is smaller than a chicken egg. However, a typical robin egg is half the length of a chicken egg, which would explain the use of “seemed” in the first sentence. However, before we can read too much into that, he goes on…
“Perhaps even potatolike, large and small.”
The same effect could have been had more succinctly: “Two moons hung in the dark red sky like different-sized potatoes”.
But perhaps I am being unfair. The story is being told from the point of view of Douglas Quaid, played in the film by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The only way to describe a character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is to say that he looks and sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I suppose there is some unwritten rule of film novelizations that stops you from doing that. Only Clive James ever came close to describing Arnold Schwarzenegger accurately (“a brown condom full of walnuts”) and Piers Anthony falls somewhat short.
“Quaid hardly needed low gravity to help him walk” he starts falteringly with a description that could apply to almost anyone, but gets better from there: “He was a massive man, so muscular that even a space suit could not hide his physique. He seemed to exude raw power.”
Quaid though, despite “chiseled features… reflecting his indomitable will” isn’t the brightest of characters. He spends much of the book daydreaming about the women he meets. One can easily imagine him clenching a jaw like a JCB shovel scoop while he mentally wrestles with the question of whether Mars’ moons were more like eggs or different sized potatoes. Unfortunately, in the book, as in the film, he has a lot of thinking to do and he has to do much of it while being shot at or kicked in the balls.
Quaid’s job involves using a large jackhammer to demolish old buildings. His wife, Lori, comes as close to being Sharon Stone as Piers Anthony’s literary powers can bring her; she has “splendid anatomy” and “impressive architecture”. However, Quaid is discontent, and he dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman (“well formed for her sex”). While he can’t afford to go to Mars, he can afford to have the memories of a Mars trip implanted directly into his brain by a company called Rekall. Despite warnings from his coworker about the obvious dangers involved with that, he goes ahead and does it anyway.
As soon as he is strapped into the doctor’s chair, the adventure really begins. Although, Piers Anthony’s prose is bashed together from random odds and ends, he proves adept at keeping the story straight while maintaining the perfect level of ambiguity. We never quite know whether what’s happening to Quaid is real, or an implanted memory. As the plot sprouts further tangles (did the implanted memory reveal a hidden memory?), it could have got wildly confusing but Piers Anthony keeps it tight. And it works. A theme even emerges from what could have been a mess: as Quaid loses grip on reality and what he thinks he knows or knew, he clings more strongly to what he believes is fundamentally right, and love – ultimately – shows him the way.
It’s corny, but it holds it all together. Something has to. There are plot holes aplenty and the characterisation is scanty, but it works. I’ll not be racing out to buy one of Piers Anthony’s 200 other books (e.g. Apoca Lips, released 2023), but he does a good bad job here, and that’s all I could ever have hoped for.