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“‘[…] You can’t be this; you can’t actually do this […] But you can have been and have done. […]’”
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1966, and even those who have never read anything by PKD might know it from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven, which in parts is extremely faithful to the original short story, though focusing more on action and leaving out the twist of the tale.
Douglas Quail is an average citizen, unhappily married and caught in a job that offers neither prestige nor intellectual gratification nor change, and so he has taken to dreaming about going to Mars one day, well-knowing that a trip to that planet is quite beyond his financial means. His yearnings to break out of the rat-race of his meaningless existence growing ever stronger, he decides to seek the services of a company called Rekall that implants memories in people’s mind, thus providing them with experiences they have hitherto failed to make. Quail chooses a very popular programme, namely that of having been a government agent on a Mars mission, but as accident will have it, that is exactly what he has really been – only the government has made sure that he forgot all about this experience because you don’t really want a hitman to remember that he has killed several people for the government, do you? Tampering with his memory through the Rekall engineers now has unforeseen, and undesirable, consequences. – But there is also an older memory of Quail’s that has passed into oblivion and that will make those in charge see Quail’s case in a new light: As a child, Quail prevented an extraterrestrial invasion by impressing the aliens with an act of compassion, and the emotionalized aliens promised to call off their sinister plans as long as Quail would be alive.
In his movie, Verhoeven did not use the motif of the alien invasion that was cancelled due to a child’s ethic nobility, but in a way this is what makes the story rather interesting: By killing off some people on Mars, Quail furthered the interests of his government, but by acting in a spirit of love and compassion, he saved the entire world – if only for his lifetime. There could be an elevating lesson in this if Quail had not also been given “a magic invisible destroying rod” by the impressed aliens with the help of which he would later pull off his hitman-jobs.
I find it very interesting that for a short story (and also by Dick’s standards) Quail is quite carefully fleshed out a character, which may be a hint that Dick wanted to tell us something about modern people and their ennui with their own lives. People live in a comparatively safe world but the price they have to pay for this is the lack of adventure and their submission to routines, regulations and standardization. But then, this might be what life is all about and the longing for something beyond this might be a mere whim. And who really needs a company like Rekall when our own memories are usually manipulated by our conceptions of ourselves, e.g. when in retrospect, all our actions seem to be purposeful and well-deliberated, when our lives make sense (although lacking glory)? If you browse through some of your journals from ten years ago, you may be surprised that the person speaking there is not really the person you remember, and you may not even like that person very much.
Reading about Quail also made me suspect that there may be a little bit about Dick himself in that character: Dick had some unhappy marriages, and we read of Quail’s wife that ”it was a wife’s job to bring her husband down to Earth”, to remind him of what he failed in in his life. And then this fancy of having already saved the world without remembering it, does this not match with what we know about the later years in Dick’s own life – when he was convinced that Divine powers spoke to him through visions, and the like?
All in all, this is a short story that seems to be working on several levels, as is usual with this remarkable writer.