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As I recall the movie Total Recall, it was a more interesting than usual Summer blockbuster, though still marred by excessive special effects and overlength.  It had an intriguing basic premise, but the nuances of the story kept getting lost amidst all the exploding heads.  The movie is based, like the equally uneven Blade Runner (see Orrin's review of the book), on the work of the cult favorite sci-fi author, Philip K. Dick.  But while movie tie-in versions of Blade Runner abound (Dick's original, more descriptive, title was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall is based on just a short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which is harder to find.  Until that is I stumbled upon this cheesy looking, but gem filled, collection of stories by various authors, each of which is the basis for a recent science fiction film.

Dick's original short story is, predictably, a great improvement over the film, idea-filled rather than action-packed.  While Douglas Quail may be a miserable little salaried employee, for the West Coast Emigration Bureau, he has one abiding dream, "Before I die I'll see Mars."  Such a trip though would be enormously expensive and his wife constantly derides his ambition.  Lucky for him, Rekal, Incorporated, can implant it's customers with false memories that will make it seem as if they've actually experienced their fondest dreams:

    Was this the answer?  After all, an illusion, no matter how convincing, remained nothing more
    than an illusion.  At least objectively.  But subjectively--quite the opposite entirely.

So Quail goes to Rekal for the Mars "extra-factual memory implant," complete with a scenario that has him acting as an agent for Interplan.  Then, as the process gets underway, an unusual thing happens; under sedation he begins to recover genuine memories of a past trip to Mars.  As one of the technicians explains:

    He wants a false memory implanted that corresponds to a trip he actually took.  And a false reason
    which is the real reason.  He's telling the truth; he's a long way down in the narkidrine.  The trip
    is very vivid in his mind--at least under sedation.  But apparently he doesn't recall it otherwise.
    Someone, probably at a government military-sciences lab, erased his conscious memories; all he
    knew was that going to Mars meant something special to him, and so did being a secret agent.
    They couldn't erase that; it's not a memory but a desire, undoubtedly the same one that motivated
    him to volunteer for the assignment in the first place.

Realizing the gravity of their situation, the folks at Rekal hustle him out the door and refund half his money.  But now Quail starts to get fragmentary memories of a Mars trip, some from the implant and some from the real trip, so he returns to Rekal to get the matter straightened out.  Meanwhile, agents from Interplan, who have been monitoring his thoughts against just such an eventuality, show up to try and kill him before he can reveal the details of his secret mission to Mars.  Quail convinces them to have another try at implanting false memories, but this time the genuine memories that are recovered are even more bewildering.

It's a clever, twisty story, somewhat reminiscent of a really good Twilight Zone.  In addition, over the space of just twenty or so pages, Dick raises some unsettling questions about memory, desire, delusion and reality, and how they all interact in the human mind.  Total Recall is a perfectly adequate way to kill a couple hours; We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, though it takes just a half hour to read, will keep you pondering for a good long while.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Phillip Dick Links:

    -The CriticalWave: an ongoing bibliographical list of Philip K. Dick's work.
    The Second Coming of Philip K. Dick: The inside-out story of how a hyper-paranoid, pulp-fiction hack conquered the movie world 20 years after his death. (Frank Rose, December 2003, Wired)
    -REVIEW: of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick (Michael Moorcock, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: "philip k. dick"
    -philipkdick.com
    -Shifting Worlds of Philip K. Dick
    -The Philip Kindred Dick WWW FAQ
    -Philip K. Dick, 1928-1982 (includes cover art)
    -Philip K Dick:   A Tribute to A Master of Science Fiction
    -Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)
    -Philip K. Dick reading List (SF Site)
    -Laura's Addiction : Phillip K. Dick from A to Z
    -NEWSGROUP: altfanphilipdick
    -Paranormal Experiences of Philip K. Dick
    -LINKS:  Dick, Philip K. (Lycos)
    -ESSAY : Marxist Literary Critics Are Following Me! : How Philip K. Dick betrayed his academic admirers to the FBI. (Jeet Heer, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY : Through a Lens Darkly : Josh Saunders on Philip K. Dick, last of the early Christians (FEED)
    -ESSAY: The Electric Dreams of Philip K. Dick (Richard Bernstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Dick's Dicks: The Future of Law Enforcement According to Philip K. Dick  (Tim Kenyon,  The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island)
    -ESSAYS: ( A Tribute to A Master of Science Fiction)
    -ESSAY: Joyce in Philip K. Dick (The Modern World)
    -REVIEW: of Do Androids Dream... (Mystery Guide)
    -ESSAY : Dickian Time in The Man in the High Castle
    -ESSAY : Meaning in the Man in the High Castle
    -PLOTLINES in The Man in the High Castle
    -ESSAY : The Metacolonization of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle: Mimicry, Parasitism, and Americanism in the P.S.A. (Cassie Carter, Science-Fiction Studies 22.67, Nov. 1995)
    -ESSAY : Reality, Authenticity, Metafiction and The Man in the High Castle. (Ian Krykorka)
    -REVIEW : of Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick ( Mark Wilson , scifi.com)
    -SHORT REVIEW: MARY AND THE GIANT. By Philip K. Dick (Nancy Forbes, NY Times Book Review)
    -SHORT REVIEW: PUTTERING ABOUT IN A SMALL LAND. By Philip K. Dick  (Barbara Tritel, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST: Great Science Fiction: recommended Reading (Steve Schmidt)

FILMS :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Philip K. Dick (Imdb)
    -INFO : Blade Runner (1982) (Imdb)
    -BUY IT : Blade Runner (1982) DVD (Amazon.com)
    -Blade Runner Kitchener / Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
    -REVIEW : of Blade Runner (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times)
    -REVIEW : of Blade Runner (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Blade Runner (Rita Kempley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Blade Runner (Film Written Magazine)
    -BUY IT: Total Recall (1990) DVD (amazon.com)
    -BUY IT: Total Recall (1990) VHS (amazon.com)
    -INFO : Total Recall (1990) (imdb)
    -REVIEW: of Total Recall (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Total Recall (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)
    -REVIEW: of Total Recall (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Total Recall (Rita Kempley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Total Recall (John Hartl, Film.com)

GENERAL:
    -ESSAY: Beyond the lurid book covers : In defense of science fiction (John Clute, CNN/Salon)
    -ESSAY : Is Cyberpunk Still Breathing (ANDREW LEONARD, Salon)

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