Fiction Reviews

Total Recall: What is real?

(1987/2012) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, pbk, £8.99, 395pp, ISBN 978-0-575-10029-9


There is a lot of talk these days about the (so called) 'new weird'. Well give me the old weird any day!

Philip K. Dick needs no introduction to SF enthusiasts, but if you have stumbled across this review and are not an SF reader then Philip Dick is the US author whose novels and short stories have been turned into films such as Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. His short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale' was the broad (the short story's concluding rationale is different) inspiration for the 1990 film Total Recall that itself has just been remade (2012) by Len Wiseman. The story concerns one Douglas Quaid who goes to the Rekall company for a holiday with a difference: he has artificial memories of a holiday implanted. However the memory implant serves to unsettle previous unknown memory implants and this causes Quaid to doubt his ability to distinguish between what is real and what is implanted, as well as to question why unknowingly he had had earlier memories implanted into him…

The book Total Recall: What is real is a collection of 24 of some of Dick's best short SF stories. Of course Dick wrote many SF shorts, so this collection is but a small fraction of his output. The stories in this volume were originally published between 1964 and 1981 and so reflect the latter two thirds of his writing career. More on this collection's pedigree later. For now be assured that all the stories are crackers and will be welcomed by all but the most jaded of SF readers (and even the jaded are likely to be stirred).

In case you need to check the Philip Dick short story collections you do have then here is the content list for this collection. If you are missing just half a dozen or more then, such is the quality of Dick's work, you may want to get this collection. (But if you are in this position then you know this already.) The stories in this collection are:-

'The Little Black Box'
This story is about the new, part techno-based religion Mercerism that was in Dick's subsequent novel Do Androids Dream of electric Sheep that was adapted for the cinema as Blade Runner. Of course, the concept of Mercerism while a substantive part of the novel's backdrop, never made it into the film.

'The War With The Fnools'
The Earth is being subject to alien invasion attempts by the Fnools. So far their efforts have been spectacularly inept.

'A Game of Unchance'
The interplanetary fair came to the Martian colony outpost with games a plenty. And then a second carnival arrives. But the odds were stacked (in an unsusual way).

'Precious Artefact'
The terraformer making a region of Mars ready for human colonisation had completed his task and wanted to return to Earth. However when he got there things were not quite right...

'Retreat Syndrome'
John Cupertino from Ganymede was on Earth but wondering whether it was real....

'A Terran Odyssey'
A new teacher arrives at the settlement and is interviewed. In this post-apocalyptic America skills and goods for barter forms the basis of what passes for the economy. This story was assembled by Dick from parts of the novel Dr Bloodmoney.

'Your Appointment With Yesterday'
What if time ran backwards.... This story formed the basis for the novel Counter-Clock World.

'Holy Quarrel'
The computer linked to the nation's nuclear defence system that monitored for potential attacks had found a (false) threat close to home and those responsible needed a top programmer to help them fix it The artificial intelligent computer, deciding that it is its mission to launch a missile attack on northern California, needs to be talked to...

'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale' (the loose basis for Total Recall)
As noted earlier in this review, a man decides to go on a virtual holiday and it is to Mars. It was virtual because false memories of the holiday would be inserted into him. However it is discovered that the man already has had memories altered... This short is distinctly different from the film: though the film borrowed other themes Philip Dick used in his writing. Nonetheless key elements of the film are here and the story very much works in its own right (though it would have been difficult to adapt into a film in its own right. So for once you can forgive Hollywood).

'Not By Its Cover'
The alien Wub appears once more in a Dick story. (Hooray.) It previously appeared as the title story in the collection Beyond Lies the Wub. Nuff said. Enjoy.

'Return Match'
It was not an ordinary gambling casino run by off-world humans. And the policeman and his colleagues encounter pinball of a kind you will not have seen before...

'Faith Of Our Fathers'
An odd story that has many elements including Communism winning the Cold War, and psychedelics conferring religious experience. Dick later opined that many elements that were a hallmark of his personal life crisis appear in this story.

'The Story To End All Stories For Harlan Ellison's Anthology Dangerous Visions'
A short, short story, only one paragraph long and so it is not appropriate to summarise other than it was for Ellison's famous anthology.

'The Electric Ant'
Garson Poole wakes up in hospital wondering what it is all about. Reality, that is.

'Cadbury, The Beaver Who Lacked'
In this previously unpublished story (and dare I say it I can see why) a beaver decides to have an extramarital affair.

'A Little Something For Us Tempunauts'
The time travel expedition arrived in the future only to discover that they already died in the past on their return to their original present... (If you follow my drift.)

'The Pre-Persons'
In a resource-depleted future, unlicensed children (presumably without parents and who were too young to have a soul) were impounded and if not found a home were culled. A father who could not afford a licence for his kid demands to be taken along as he says that when he grew up he never seemed to have acquired a soul, at least he could not find it... This story caused a stir among those campaigning for abortion rights.

'The Eye of the Sibyl'
Another unpublished story, and again I can see why. However this one does have its protagonist proclaim that when he grows up he will be 'a science fiction writer'.

'The Day Mr. Computer Fell Out Of Its Tree'
The high tech utopia could have been a very nice place in which to live but everything was slightly (and infuriatingly) wrong as everything was controlled by a single source -- Mr Computer -- that had obviously malfunctioned....

'The Exit Door Leads In'
Bob Bibleman wins the State-run competition and gets to go to college. However obedience and doing what is best for the state can seem conflicting goals...

'Chains of Air, Web of Aether'
In a dome on a planet Leo McVane did his job in comparative isolation. However Linda Fox in the next dome was ill. Should Leo visit?

'Strange Memories Of Death'
The block of apartments was being redeveloped. The renting occupants can either move or buy an apartment in the new block. The Lysol lady has not moved out and has not bought a new apartment and this worries the other last resident who is waiting to move into his newly-bought apartment...

'I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon'
In the middle of an interstellar journey the suspended animation nit partially fails to that the occupant is conscious. The onboard AI decides to feed him his own memories to keep him occupied...

'The Alien Mind'
When the ship's cat accidentally hits buttons sending the spacecraft off course the astronaut kills it. This was not a good move when his next stop was a world whose citizen's have a firm ethical stance when it comes to animal rights...

These stories are not all. This collection also has a nifty introduction by Thomas M. Disch from 1986. Also at the book's end, Gregg Rickman and Paul Williams have researched the original copyright details for each short story, and any alternate titles under which the story appeared elsewhere, as well as short notes on many of the stories culled from Philip Dick's notes and interviews. And so we discover that the story 'The Little Black Box' really does have a connection with Dick's masterpiece novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the loose basis for the film Blade Runner). This appendix together with the introduction is real added value.

Finally, a word on this collection's pedigree. Now this gets complicated so bear with me, but it is because it genuinely is a little complicated and so much so that a paragraph on this book's pedigree is required especially if you are new to Dick and wish to seek out his other collections of shorts. As briefly touched upon earlier in this review, there is overlap in the stories contained in the various collections of Dick shorts. Confusion arises over the story and collection title 'We Can remember It For You Wholesale' (the loose basis for the original 1990 Total Recall film). Originally this collection was published in 1987 as The Little Black Box which was published re-titled in the British Isles as We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Millennium which was also an imprint of Orion, the same publishing house as the longstanding SF/F imprint Gollancz which now publishes this 2012 edition as Total Recall: What is real?.

Phew, got that?

OK, there is more… And here, added to the above, it does get more than a little confusing.

There is a quite separate collection of Dick shorts called Second Variety and this too has been re-issued, re-titled as We Can Remember It For You Wholesale but which does not contain the short 'We Can remember It For You Wholesale'.

In short there are two different collections of SF shorts out there called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and Second Variety. So if you are starting out on building a collection of Philip K. Dick works – something that surely every avid reader of Anglophone SF ends up doing sooner rather than later – you do need to note the copyright pages at the front to ensure you get both the collections and that one of these does have 'Second Variety' (which itself has been made into quite a faithful film called Screamers (1995)) that is not in this collection anymore. What it all boils down to is that the various collections of Phillip K. Dick shorts have been unhelpfully published as variant titles. This new re-titling by Gollancz from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale to Total Recall: What is real? does usefully help us avoid confusion with the other We Can Remember It For You Wholesale out there.

If, like me, you are confused by all this then a quick shorthand -- in addition to checking the stories -- as to which collections to buy is that you want the ones with a 'notes' section at the collection's end.

And so there you have it. A strong recommendation for this collection to casual SF readers and some hopefully helpful tips for serious collectors. The bottom line is do not lightly pass up the opportunity to get this collection.

Jonathan Cowie


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