Skip to main content

Altering the Mind Mundanely: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, the Work that Inspired Total Recall

Tony Caro enjoys writing about all things pop culture, especially movies and television.


The Total Recall Movie (both of them) Missed the Real Themes within the Work of Philip K. Dick

Even those with a merely passing interest in science-fiction are familiar with the classic 1990 film Total Recall. Even after nearly 25 years, the film still resonates with audiences even if the recent 2012 remake does not. The remake was not awful per se, but it lacked the fun and style of the original. The remake didn't do well at the box office but will reach millions of viewers via cable and streaming.

How many people will read the original short story that spawned the two films?

A Pulp Style Short Story Turns into a Huge Money Machine....Decades Later

Millions watched the films, but only a fraction of the audience read the brilliant short story that spawned the films. "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" remains one of Philip K. Dick's most admired short works of prose among the late author's growing cult of fans, deservedly so.

The legendary science-fiction visionary created works that became cinematic classics, with the most notable being Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for 1982's classic Blade Runner. As far as his short works of fiction, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" might be his most well-received short works and, quite honestly, more accessible. The original Total Recall movie earned far more at the box office than the darker, more esoteric Blade Runner.

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" follows many familiar themes present in Dick's writing. One additional benefit to this particular short story is that it is not as dark or morosely cynical as his other works. There is a sense of mystery, suspense, and fun surrounding Douglas Quail's slow realization he did not always live a boring life as he was once a master spy and assassin who killed a rebel leader on the planet Mars.

He still is all of those things, which is why triggering his repressed memories has gotten him into a lot of trouble. While there are more than a few differences between the short story and the Total Recall movie, the general premise remains.

The Subtext of the Subconscious Mind

While the over-the-top plot of the short story is something to marvel at, the most significant value is the subtext of the themes motivating the plot's action.

What distinguished Dick from so many other science-fiction authors was he was not writing high adventure in his work. (Dick referred to the standard commercial space opera as not science-fiction as much as it was the western genre transported to the future) His futuristic work was, ironically, not as futuristic as you might think. While the story's world exists in a dark future, many characters are contemporary in their conflicts. Dick worked very hard at examining the human condition from the science-fiction genre, helping to set his stories apart from lighthearted fantasy.

Within the first two pages of the short story, Dick makes a rather profound, expositional statement to the reader:

Scroll to Continue

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

In other words, whether something happened or the deluded believes it happened, proves indistinguishable in terms of how a person reacts. Memories and experiences are recorded in the mind and then play a considerable role in shaping an individual's personality. Real memory is not the same thing as a false memory. However, the impact on shaping a person's mind can be the same. Whether real or faulty, a memory or, for that matter, an actual or false perception can shape a person's mental state, outlook on life, and so on.

This is why so many people look to engage in altered states. Visiting Rekall is no different than using mind-altering drugs. (Not so ironically, before undergoing the memory implant, Rekall clients are drugged) Using drugs as a means of altering thoughts, memories, and perceptions have been commonplace for generations. There are other more mundane but equally effective means of altering one's mind. The book Buying In greatly details how we try to shape who we are and our perceptions of ourselves through our consumer purchasing decisions. While we do not change our memories by buying into what the current culture promotes to us, we can change how others look at us by creating a ready-made image of ourselves in their mind. Through making simple purchases, much like Quail's buying the implanted memory of a trip to Mars, the reality is altered. When you ''buy into'' something, you are absorbing it into your life, and, in some instances, your purchases can have a profound effect.


The Paths of Altering the Mind Take Many Routes

The paths to altering our mind on a subjective level through memory implants are not reliant on a service such as Rekall. Do people not change their memories through implanted perceptions of an alternate life by excessive entertainment-based distractions?

While it is not Dick's thematic theory, the argument could be made that reading fiction or watching a motion picture shares similarities with fantasy memory implantation. Granted, no film subconsciously alters audience memories to leading people into believing they are the on-screen characters. However, someone enjoying a work may subconsciously identify with a character or an experience and connect deeply. Perhaps somewhere in the subconscious, an audience member's mind makes connections between real-life and entertainment and doesn't make clear distinctions

The entertainment experience could affect the emotions that guide behavior. How far removed is that effect from an implanted memory?

The Moral and Common Sense Ambiguity of an Implanted Memory

Is there anything wrong with attempting to alter one's memories? Perhaps someone will take the path to change perceptions regardless of moral questions. In the short story, Quail's nature embraces obsessions over a trip to Mars, so no attempts to wipe his memory ever actually work. His nature always forces him to seek the meaning behind his hidden memories of Mars.

In the real world, it will always be human nature to twist, alter, and change how the mind works, intellectually and emotionally, even if the steps to do so involve something as mundane as reading a strange science-fiction story.

You May Also Like:

The Road Warrior and the End of the Industrial Revolution, the Civil Society and the Natural World

The Future Today and Yesterday: The Strange World of the Cyberpunk Genre

Related Articles