"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”
by Philip K. Dick
“The science fiction writers of this world are resolutely different – from mankind and from each other – except that Philip K. Dick is more different,” editors Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison wrote in their anthology Nebula Award Stories Two. Except that, in a twist Dick would have enjoyed, the story they were introducing, his 1966 “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” was never nominated for a Nebula, the highest honor bestowed by SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.
It wasn’t even a runner-up for best short story of its year. Like editor Roger Zelazny, who the next year shoehorned J. G. Ballard’s “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” into his Nebula Award anthology despite its shunning by the SFWA, sometimes editors gotta do what editors gotta do,even if it requires implanting eerily realistic memories of what ought to have been.
Like those of Dick’s Walter Mittyish, Earth-bound protagonist Douglas Quail, who has become obsessed with a dream of visiting Mars. And not just visiting the newly-colonized planet, but of visiting it as an agent of the solar system’s interplanetary police force, Interplan.
That will never happen, of course. He can’t even afford the cost of trip to Mars, let alone qualify as an interplanetary agent. But he can afford the next best thing – to buy an implanted memory of such an adventure. And he knows just the place to get that done.
The technicians at Rekal (pronounced “recall” the receptionist corrects Quail) are happy to implant such memories. “The actual memory, will all its vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best,” the Rekal salesman assures Quail.
But Rekal’s technicians are stunned to realize that Quail actually has been to Mars as an Interplan spy where he committed a political assassination, only to have his memory of the true event (or was it?) previously erased. Now Rekal’s hypnotic drugs have unleashed a true memory of what was intended to be a false memory.
Not daring to explain this to Quail, the techs make no attempt to alter the existing memory. But he finds the recollection of his Martian adventure, now recalled consciously, just as hazy and vague as any real memory. Preparing to blast off a complaint to the Better Business Bureau, he finds a box of Martian souvenirs in his desk. What's going on?
And why are there Interplan cops in his apartment, and a telepathic transmitter, and a still more deeply-buried memory, which seems to Quail to be one of his boyhood fantasies? How’s a reader, not to mention Quail, supposed to know what’s real and what isn’t?
If any of this sounds familiar, maybe you’re remembering the movie Total Recall, in either its 1990 or 2012 versions, both based loosely, but only loosely, on “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”
Or maybe you’re inside the mind of Philip Kindred Dick on February 18, 1982, as he lies on the floor of his small apartment, unconscious from a stroke that will shortly kill him and perhaps thinking, as Anthony Peake writes in A Life of Philip K. Dick: The Man Who Remembered the Future, “My God, my life is exactly like the plot of any one of 10 of my novels or stories. Even down to fake memories and identity. I’m a protagonist from one of PKD’s books.”
(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins an August of adventures at sea with Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.)