‘He awoke–And wanted Mars.’
Douglas Quail wakes up in his ‘conapt’ after dreaming of Mars. He dreams of walking along its valleys. At the beginning of the story, we are told that Mars is a world ‘which only Government agents and high officials had seen.‘ It’s not a place a ‘miserable little salaried employee‘ can visit. Kirsten, Doug’s wife, reminds him of this every day. But it’s okay because ‘it was a wife’s job to bring her husband down to Earth.‘
This is how Dick’s classic story opens. As he inhales his morning shot of snuff, Doug’s wife complains that he is obsessed with the Red Planet. She wants him to take her on a trip to ‘the bottom of the ocean‘, to ‘one of those year-round aquatic resorts.‘ His Martian dreams can only lead one way: “you’re doomed, Doug!“
My first exposure to this story was via the 1990 film version of Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This led me to seek out the short story it was based on: “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. It was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1966. I found it in the 1991 Grafton edition of Volume 5 of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick.
*(Spoiler warning ahead! I reveal the plot so skip to the end if you don’t want to know the details.)*
On his way to work, Doug stops off at REKAL, Incorporated. The ‘bare-bosomed and tidy‘ blonde receptionist sends Doug in to meet Mr McClane. (I’m not making this up, it’s classic 1960s-PKD writing!) McClane offers Doug the memory of a trip to Mars including ticket stubs, photos, souvenirs and more.
“You’ll know you went, all right. […] It’ll be a real trip in your mind; we guarantee that.”
Doug is hesitant, due to the cost, but McClane convinces him to try it.
“Remember this: if at any time you doubt that you really took an expensive trip to Mars you can return here and get a full refund.”
During the procedure, Doug regains real memories of visiting Mars in the past. It turns out that he is in fact a secret agent working for Interplan but his memories of this recent mission have been erased. The REKAL technicians panic and pull him out of the procedure. McClane refunds Doug part of his fee and sends him home.
Doug is angry because he thinks the REKAL procedure failed. His memories are unclear but he remembers going to the REKAL office earlier in the day. He returns home and finds a ‘box of fauna’ he smuggled back from Mars in his desk. Doug then confronts his wife about his trip to Mars but she won’t give him a straight answer. Instead, she packs her things and leaves him, slamming the door on her way out.
A voice behind him said, “Well, that’s that. Now put up your hands, Quail. And also please turn around and face this way.”
Doug turns round to face an Interplan Police agent standing in his apartment pointing a gun at him. The agent tells Doug that there is a “tele-transmitter” in his brain which allows the agency to read his thoughts.
“We know all your actions today and all your thoughts.”
A second Interplan agent arrives and speaks to the first agent. While they’re talking, Doug remembers why he was sent to Mars. Interplan trained him for five years to become an assassin. He went to Mars to kill someone on Interplan’s orders–it’s never revealed who the target was–and now that Doug has remembered this, he is a danger to the Agency. The two agents try to shoot Doug but he uses his training to escape.
‘Ironically, he had gotten exactly what he had asked Rekal, Incorporated for. Adventure, peril, Interplan police work, a secret and dangerous trip to Mars in which his life was at stake–everything he had wanted as a false memory.’
Doug remembers that the Agency can hear his thoughts and attempts to make a deal with them. Perhaps they can remove the memory of Mars again and this time replace it with something more substantial, something that will stick. They agree to try the procedure and so Doug surrenders.
They take him back to REKAL, Incorporated and the procedure is begun again. What could possibly go wrong?
“We Can Remember It for you Wholesale” is classic Philip K. Dick! It’s inventive, confusing, pulpy, funny, and at times completely bonkers. It’s a story about wish fulfillment, escaping from “ordinary” life or a mundane job, space travel and adventure, the fragile nature of memories and how they can change or be influenced, paranoia–something common to a lot of PKD’s writing–and even telepathy. I wasn’t sure about the ending as it kind of fades out with a bit of a whimper. But some of the ideas in here are quite brilliant. Don’t forget this was written over 50 years ago! If we had access to this kind of technology today, would we use it? Maybe we already have?..