Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit. Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug [ZIP] delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills…
--The New York Times, April 5th, 2009
PATIENT #1234567. Who am I? I don’t remember. I feel like parts of my memory have been systematically erased. I feel like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel. Hey, wait a minute—maybe I’m Philip K. Dick. Dick is a science fiction writer specializing in stories about memory and identity; today he is best known for the movie adaptations of his work, including Blade Runner (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), Total Recall (“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”), Minority Report, Paycheck, and A Scanner Darkly. But his ideas have been copied—Dick would say cloned—for everything from books (The Bourne Identity) to movies (Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to television shows (Dollhouse). The only problem is, Philip K. Dick died in 1982. Which means I can’t be Philip K. Dick. Unless Philip K. Dick’s memories were somehow superimposed over my own. That would be a very Philip K. Dick thing to do. In which case, am I Philip K. Dick or someone else? Here’s a conveniently planted clue: a bottle with a label on it.
ZIP. That’s what the label on the bottle says. I don’t mean the label’s blank—it literally says “ZIP.” Now we’re getting somewhere. ZIP stands for Zeta Inhibitor Peptide. ZIP inhibits the production of PKMzeta in the neocortex. PKMzeta, it has recently been discovered, is critical to memory: no PKMzeta, no memories.
DON’T MIX WITH ALCOHOL. Of course, drinking to forget is an old and well-established practice. Any bottle of rotgut can erase memories by killing brain cells. But ZIP is the neutron bomb of memory wipes: it kills memories but leaves the underlying neurons intact for…repurposing.
WILL CAUSE MEMORY LOSS. Is that a dangerous side effect or a desirable end result? I can understand wanting to erase certain memories—a traumatic event, a tragic love affair, the Bush Administration. But I/Dick say memories are what make us human. If we erase our memories—even traumatic ones—we’re reduced to automatons.
MAY BE HABIT FORMING. Once we get into the habit of erasing painful or just inconvenient memories, where will it end? Will irresponsible teenagers and dissolute adults start experimenting with ZIP for kicks? How will they remember to stop? Or will they wind up tabulae rasae? Imagine a population of full-grown adults with the minds of infants crawling around. The toilet training problems alone would be huge.
TAKE AS DIRECTED. That’s very Philip K. Dick too—sinister external forces imposing not just their will but their version of reality on events. Take the current financial crisis, for example. The Fed could solve the entire problem by forcing everyone to swallow a dose of ZIP. (“401k plan? What 401k plan? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”) Some CEOs who made out like bandits during the bubble seem to be already hitting the ZIP hard.
MAY INDUCE PARANOIA. The seal is broken and the bottle is half empty, implying I/Dick drank it. Or did somebody deliberately break the seal and dump out half the contents to make me/Dick think I/Dick drank it? That’s also very Philip K. Dick: the paranoia, the uncertainty, the inability to ever know for sure. In my/his novel, The Man In The High Tower, I/Dick imagine a world twenty years after the Axis win World War II. What’s left of the United States is under military occupation by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The characters vaguely sense something is wrong, but only a mysterious, reclusive sci-fi author—who resembles me/Dick—knows the truth. Hey, wait a minute! How did an Austrian bodybuilder become Governor of California? And didn’t he star in Total Recall? This is another hallmark of my/Dick’s fiction—shifting layers of reality. (Hey, maybe I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger! Nope, don’t have bulging biceps.)
IF SYMPTONS PERSIST, CONTACT A DOCTOR. Minority Report stars Tom Cruise. (Hey, maybe I’m Tom Cruise! Nope, don’t have boyish good looks.) Cruise is a Scientologist. Scientology is based on Dianetics. Dianetics was created by Dr. L. Ron Hubbard. The central tenet of Dianetics is to have an “audit” (checklist) performed to erase bad “engrams” (memories)—just like ZIP. In some ways, Hubbard is my/Dick’s evil opposite: like me/Dick, Hubbard was a science fiction writer; unlike me/Dick, Hubbard used his talents for evil (cf. Dianetics), and wrote terrible potboilers. John Travolta, another Scientologist, starred in the movie adaptation of Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. (Hey, maybe I’m John Travolta! Nope, can’t dance.) Hubbard died in 1986, just a couple of years after me/Dick, but, as we have seen, death is no obstacle to memory transference.
DON’T MIX WITH OTHER DRUGS. In A Scanner Darkly, users are addicted to a mysterious drug called “Substance D.” Prolonged exposure to Substance D causes—no, not memory loss—multiple personality disorder. Or, in layman’s terms, going schizo. Can I be both Philip K. Dick and L. Ron Hubbard at the same time? Both Dick and Dianetics begin with the letter D. Coincidence? I/Dick/Hubbard would say “coincidences” are the way the universe tries to give us a clue.
(To promote the movie version of A Scanner Darkly, an android that looked and talked like me/Dick was developed. The android was subsequently lost in transit by American West Airlines. Hey, maybe I’m that android—which means AWA has a lot of explaining to do. But AWA has since declared bankruptcy. I smell conspiracy, which is a very Philip K. Dick thing to smell. Do androids have a sense of smell? Do androids dream of electric skunks?)
DON’T OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY. Maybe I’m a “replicant” like in Blade Runner—androids so lifelike they think they’re human. False memories are implanted in replicants to help “stabilize” them. Blade Runner starred Darryl Hannah as “a basic pleasure model.” Whatever happened to her? She made a big splash in Splash, then disappeared. In my/Dick’s novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, a world class, Bragelina-level celebrity wakes up one day in an alternate universe where he’s a nobody. The novel is really about my/Dick’s struggle for recognition outside the narrow sci-fi ghetto. Maybe Darryl Hannah could star in the movie version of FMTTPS. Maybe Quentin Tarantino could direct.
IN CASE OF DROWSINESS. I don’t know how many people read me/Dick anymore. Time named my/Dick’s novel Ubik one of the one hundred greatest English-languages novels published since 1923, but who’s even heard of it? Which is too bad, because science (cf. ZIP) is catching up with me/him. We—meaning the general public, not me and Dick and whoever else is in here—could learn a lot from me/him.
(The Library of American has recently published a two-volume set of my/his novels. I am/Dick is the first sci-fi author to be so honored. It’s edited and has an introduction by Jonathan Lethem, who used to write sci-fi before he wised up and switched to literary fiction.)
REPEAT AS NECESSARY. Some critics dismiss me/Dick as the poor man’s Thomas Pynchon. I/Dick wouldn’t know; I’ve/Dick’s never met Thomas Pynchon. Maybe nobody has met Thomas Pynchon. Maybe Thomas Pynchon doesn’t exist. Hey, maybe I’m Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon’s most famous line is the opening to Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming came across the sky.” I/Dick/Pynchon feel like screaming, but not across the sky. This uncertainty has become intolerable. Traumatic, even. There’s only one thing to do: I/Dick/Pynchon drink the rest of the bottle. Aah.
Who am I? I don’t remember. I feel like parts of my memory have been systematically erased. I feel like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel...