Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reflections on Recall

One prominent theme addressed in “Total Recall” and “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” is the issue of distinguishing reality from illusions. In attempting to convince Doug to purchase a memory implant, McClane argues that once an event has passed, all that remains are the recollections we have. Indeed, had Doug never visited Rekal, Inc. in “Total Recall”, the memories he had of life on Earth – revolving around his work as a construction worker and his wife – would still be his reality, for he would have never known about or discovered his previous life. But if these apparently fictitious memories are indistinguishable from reality, then why might we still want to determine which is real, and which is not? One possible reason might be because knowing the truth allows us to act as we actually want to, without being unknowingly influenced by others, and this is certainly reflected in Doug’s actions: although Doug knows that going to see Kuatro will endanger both himself and Melina, he does so anyway in order to find out more about his past self, Hauser, and why his memories were erased, so that he can understand why he is being hunted by Cohaagen’s men.

Closely related to Doug’s past self is the question of personal identity, which is more prominent in “Total Recall”. After Doug and Melina are captured, Doug finds out that he will be mindwiped again, with his personality replaced by Hauser’s. Given his dislike of Hauser’s manipulative, egoistic ways, his resistance to being mindwiped seems natural. However, I believe that Doug has a stronger motivation to fight the memory implant than that, as Doug resists the mindwiping attempt as strongly as he would any attempt to kill him. This is most likely because Doug has had first-hand experience with memory implanting, and as he knows that his current memories represent his reality, the loss of his current identity would be equivalent to death.

Interestingly enough, these themes discussed are related to existing philosophical questions. For example, the question of distinguishing reality from delusions has often been explored in skeptic arguments such as the dream argument, while the issue of personal identity has been discussed by Bernard Williams, who imagined a mind swap experiment and a person’s possible responses to being tortured after the mind swap. However, “Total Recall” and “We can Remember it For You Wholesale” do not present these philosophical questions as abstract thought experiments seemingly irrelevant to daily life. Instead, because the story is set in a time where memory-implanting technology has been developed, Doug is forced to confront these questions of reality and personal identity when this technology is used on him, and his response to them suggests to us how ordinary people might behave when placed in such situations as well (although we probably wouldn't be as gratuitously violent as Arnie). Thus although the futuristic setting of these stories is unfamiliar to us, the issues they discuss are not, and this is certainly consistent with Suvin’s definition of science fiction as a “literature of cognitive estrangement” (p. 372), or one which “allows us to recognize the subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar” (p. 374), suggesting this might be a useful definition to begin examining science fiction texts with.


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