20 February 2011
For me, this is the archetypal Philip K Dick story. I can’t remember if I first read it around the time it was published in 1966: as one of the scientists in it says, it’s ‘the actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions and ellipses… that’s second-best.’ Maybe I first read it when Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall came out, to see how much of that film was based on Dick’s original. (A lot, since you ask, at least in the first 15 or 20 minutes. I’ll come back to Paul Verhoeven.)
It’s archetypal because it contains one of those ideas that only come up in philosophy or science fiction: how can we know that our life up to this moment, the one we remember in all its vivid detail, is real? What if it isn’t, and that our memories have simply been put there by some outside agent? Dick’s ideas about consciousness have always appealed to me. Another of them, although not in this story, is the idea of the man-made consciousness: the android that doesn’t realise it isn’t human. Again, how would we know?
Anyway. This story takes the memory implant idea and plays with it in two ways. Quail, the character whose point of view we follow for most of it, wants to make use of the latest technique as marketed by Rekal. This ugly word, we realise when the secretary explains its pronunciation, is a corporate branding of ‘Recall’. The company sells virtual holidays: you don’t actually go away, but after a cocktail of implants you are left with memories so vivid you will always believe that you have had the holiday of your life. It’s as good as the real thing – better, as the salesman says, because these memories remain vivid.
That’s a neat enough idea in itself, and we’re having an interesting stroll around issues of perception and consciousness. But we’re only a few pages into a 20-page story, and Dick doesn’t leave it there. Up to now, it’s been Quail who is making the choices: once he’s had the implants he won’t remember anything about his visit to Rekal, but he will have been the one to mess with own brain. Soon, however, in the tawdry, over-commercialised future that Dick has placed him in, choice has nothing to do with it. (And while I’m on the subject of Dick’s futures… people still use cash and typewriters, and women still dress to impress men. The receptionist he’s spoken to is wearing the latest top: nothing at all except a paint-job on her breasts. Dick knows his target audience, I suppose – as did the makers of Star Trek: no naked breasts on that show, but the highest possible hemline for Uhura the communications officer. Verhoeven has no such scruples: one of the mutants in Total Recall reveals her breasts – all three of them. How we laughed.)
Once Quail has been implanted with the memory cocktail, Dick moves things up a notch: the false memories begin to bump into what appear to be real memories of a very similar trip, This office-bound no-hoper really has been to Mars…. Pretty soon it’s clear not only that he’s had the memory of a real trip erased – he’s had a whole life of work for an interplanetary security force erased as well. He’s no deskbound office worker, he’s – well, what is he? And who is he?
Things gather pace. Quail, almost lost in a fog of real and unreal memories, is being monitored by a kind of telepathic tracking device, and soon the security forces are on to him. What are they going to do? They’ve done their best to hide Quail in a kind of psychological witness protection scheme, but it hasn’t worked: as in the opening line of the story he’ll wake up with ‘the dream and the yearning’ for Mars – and he’ll go back to Rekal as soon as he can.
(This is where the movie version really begins to diverge from the story. Verhoeven’s visions of possible futures are always cruel – think of RoboCop and Starship Troopers – and whereas Dick has the security agency doing its best for Quail, in Total Recall the scientists at Rekal alert a security force led by one of Verhoeven’s tame psychopaths. And whereas in Dick’s story Quail’s wife is merely implicated in the cover-up, in Verhoeven’s film she tries to kill him as soon as she knows what’s happened.)
Quail is made an offer he can’t refuse: either he’ll have to be executed, because the assassination he performed on Mars is too big a story ever to be allowed to leak out… or they will have to implant something even more exciting in his mind to push that boring old Mars adventure to the inside pages. Has he any ideas? Tell you what, why don’t they have a root around inside his head?
This is what they do – and they find a childish dream. And regrettably, from now on Dick goes for a storyline straight out of Astounding Stories, which is a pity. The fantasy discovered inside Quail’s head is of an alien race of small creatures whose spacecraft landed near him when he was nine years old – and the agency scientists go about creating a false memory to make the dream real. The alien creatures had been about to invade but, somehow, he is able to show them ‘kindness and mercy’ – traits they have never come across before and are beguiled by. Instead of invading, they give him a written citation of gratitude before leaving Earth – and they will never invade while he is alive.
You can guess the rest. When the scientists try to implant the memory they discover that it wasn’t all a dream: since the age of nine, Quail has been single-handedly responsible for keeping the world free, and he has the aliens’ citation to prove it. I assume this is Dick’s tongue-in-cheek dig at the alien invasion genre but (sigh) it makes Dr Who seem highbrow.
The best thing to do with this final plot-twist is to ignore it and remember this story for the interesting stuff. Paul Verhoeven certainly ignores it. Instead, he takes Dick’s McGuffin of an insurgency on Mars and bases the rest of his movie on it. A lot of it is as forgettable as Dick’s invasion idea, but in one scene Verhoeven improves on the original. His main character is confronted with a video of the slimy corporate hitman he used to be before his identity-change, crowing over the fact that if he is watching this, then he’s about to be converted back to his unprepossessing ‘real’ self. Fortunately, this is not only a Paul Verhoeven movie, it’s an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie, and he’s going to have none of it. After a bit more of the bone-wrenching violence we’ve already seen (at Rekal, in his apartment, on the subway), our man escapes and is on his way to Mars. Where, single-handedly… etc.
(I’ve just remembered another welcome improvement in the movie: the irritating robot taxi-drivers look and speak exactly like a work colleague of mine.)