22 pages 44 minutes read

Philip K. Dick

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is a short story by renowned sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, first published in April 1966 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story is about a man named Douglas Quail, who visits a medical facility which promises to implant fake memories about visiting Mars in his head. The story has twice been adapted into film, though both movie adaptations change the title to Total Recall and make significant alterations to the plot.

This guide uses the 2012 eBook edition of the story, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (available at https://onlinereadfreenovel.com/philip-k-dick/34941-total_recall.html).

Douglas Quail is a downtrodden office clerk who lives with his critical, angry wife Kirsten in a basic conapt (residential quarters) in the not-too-distant future. For years, he has dreamed about visiting Mars to escape from his life as a “miserable little salaried employee” (4). When he raises the subject with Kirsten, she snidely accuses him of dreaming about other women and demands he stop obsessing about Mars. Then, in a moment of warmer feeling, she suggests they instead go on vacation to the bottom of the ocean, but Quail ignores her.

On his way to work, Quail stops in at Rekal Incorporated for an appointment with a salesman named McClane, who is excited about Quail’s desire to “want to have gone to Mars” (7). The odd grammar is purposeful: Rekal offers a cheaper and faster way to go on a truly one-of-a-kind vacation by implanting fake memories in their customers’ minds. The memories Rekal implants are completely indistinguishable from real ones; moreover, to really sell the fake reality, Rekal also plants souvenirs, receipts, and other corroborating objects in their clients’ conapts. The goal is for Rekal’s customers to have no memories of Rekal at all, but instead to believe that that they really went on whatever trip they want implanted.

Quail doubts that Rekal can really create a convincing memory of him being a secret agent for Interplan, but he decides to go ahead. After two burly men lead Quail to the lab, McClane collects a gun, a transmitter, a spy manual, and other “bits which made no intrinsic sense but which would be woven into the warp and woof of Quail’s imaginary trip [to] coincide with his memory” (9).

There’s a call from the lab. The technicians discovered an irregularity in Quail’s brain after sedating him (but, presumably, before the implantation) and Quail then underwent a sudden change of personality. Quail repeats to McClane what he’s already been telling Rekal staff—they have blown his cover as an actual secret agent sent on a mission to Mars; he wonders whether Kirsten might be an Interplan operative keeping an eye on him. The sedative has recovered older memories that have been deliberately erased from his mind, but they couldn’t erase everything about this past life, such as the feeling that “it’s not a memory but a desire” (10). The Rekal technicians panic. On McClane’s orders, they erase any memory of his trip to Rekal and send him home with half of his money.

As Quail rides home in a taxi, he recalls faint memories of a month-long trip to Mars. He thinks about the Martian plants he brought back with him—plants that are not available on Earth. Trying to find them in his jacket, he instead pulls out a receipt for his half-refund from Rekal—a disturbing find, as he has no memory of the corporation. After he redirects the taxi back to Rekal, Quail calls Kirsten and asks her whether he has ever been to Mars. She angrily accuses him of being drunk and hangs up.

At Rekal, Quail reveals that he actually remembers everything about the botched procedure and demands all of his money back. After he confronts McClane, threatening him with the Better Business Bureau and feeling “burning angry” (11). McClane agrees to refund Quail’s money with a resigned and resentful tone. However, he advises Quail to tell no one anything about a trip to Mars. As Quail rides home, he plans to file a complaint about Rekal.

Quail sits at his desk and composes his complaint letter. However, he is confused when he finds samples of dried-up Martian worms. Quail tries to process what’s happened: Did he get an implant from Rekal or actually visit Mars? In a moment of lucidity, he tells Kirsten, “I have both memory-tracks grafted inside my head; one is real and one isn’t but I can’t tell which is which” (12). Kirsten again denies that he has ever gone to Mars, but Quail worries that he is on the edge of a “psychotic episode” (12). Kirsten decides that this is the last straw and leaves her husband (either because she is tired of his obsession, or because she really was an Interplan agent).

As soon as she exits the house, an armed man dressed in the uniform of the Interplan Police Agency appears, threatening Quail to put his hands up. His face seems vaguely familiar to Quail. The cop reveals that a tele-transmitter has been implanted in Quail’s skull, through which Interplan can read his thoughts (this is either true, or it is a manifestation Quail’s aversion to Rekal’s memory implant). The conversation is vaguely one-sided—Quail has only to think of something and the cop answers his thought out loud (again, either because the cop really is reading Quail’s thoughts in real time, or because Quail is imagining both sides of the conversation).

After a second cop joins them, Quail gradually remembers more and more about his old life: He was not exactly a secret agent, but a highly trained assassin who killed an important political figure on behalf of the government of Earth—something “not in accord with our great white allprotecting father public image” (14). Now that Quail knows the truth, he must be killed.

The cops demand Quail surrender, but Quail suddenly realizes that he has his assassin skills back. He fights and escapes. Unsure what to do next, Quail thinks at his pursuers—assuming they can hear his thoughts, he asks to have his memories of his assassin life erased once more. A voice in his head answers—his former commander communicating with Quail through the transmitter. They come to a compromise: Interplan psychiatrists will create a new memory which will satisfy Quail’s subconscious need to return to Mars by creating an even more “expansive daydream” out of Quail’s deepest desires (15), allowing him to live a quiet, dull life. If this does not work, however, they will have to kill him. Quail agrees, feeling that Interplan sympathizes with him.

Quail turns himself in and is sent to a psychiatrist, who probes Quail’s mind to discover his innermost desires. It turns out that Quail’s craving for adventure is built on the foundation of a fantasy he has had since childhood. In this fantasy, a species of mice-sized aliens is about to invade Earth and wipe out all life with their superior technology, when they encounter Quail. His kindness, empathy, and acceptance convince them not to invade the Earth while Quail is still alive. In this fantasy, Quail protects the Earth “simply by being alive” (17), thus becoming the most important person on the planet.

The commanders scoff that Quail’s fantasy is very narcissistic, but at Rekal, McClane tells them that this isn’t even the most self-involved memory wish he’s seen. McClane prepares an elaborate story to go with the souvenir items he will plant in Quail’s apartment this time: a magic healing rod, a letter of thanks from the UN, and a scrap of “alien” writing. All is set to go, but just after Rekal technicians sedate Quail, they run into a new problem: Quail suddenly, spontaneously remembers that the fantasy about the aliens is true.