Recall Mechanism

Story Background
“Recall Mechanism” was originally published in If in July 1959. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 103–116.


Plot Summary
Humphrys—an analyst—is dealing with a new patient named Sharp. After discussing the nature of their relationship, including the new non-hierarchical protocols in the psychiatrists’ office, Sharp begins discussing his work in the Division of War Destruction Salvage. Sharpe tells Humphrys that he has been having hallucinations.

Sharp is in his living room reading reports on carrot mutations and the infestation of mutated rats. These are a problem because the government was only focusing on eliminating human mutations. Giller came inside his house, distributing Sharp’s work. Sharp offers Giller a beer and asks why he is interrupting his day. He says he just wanted to say hi to someone from the same pre-war farming community. Giller’s real business is to ask for funding to rebuild that area, the Pentaluma-Sonoma region, which specialized in eggs and wine production. Sharp points out that region is a low priority. After getting Giller out of the house, Sharpe experiences an intense felling of vertigo, causing him to stumble to the ground. He wondered why he had this intense fear of falling. He rarely left the ground.

Humphrys mentions that the fear of falling is a common enough phobia. After hearing about Sharp’s childhood in the war, Humphrys suggest that his phobia was rooted in his childhood anxiety about being trapped. Sharp rejects this since he does not have an anxiety about being trapped. After hearing about other incidents in his life, Humphrys suggests an analysis that will read back his life until they determine what causes the fear.

After the test, Humphrys declares that he located the event that has caused Sharp’s fear. He will be attacked and fall through a hatch of an airplane. Although it is a true memory (he is a precog) Sharp suppresses the memory. Humphreys begins other tests to locate the experiences and feeling surrounding the event.

Sharp experiences a memory of walking through some snow-covered ruins, as part of a reclamation effort. Humphrys sends Sharp back in for an even earlier memory. This time, the memory is of Giller pressing Sharp to invest resources to reclaim the Petaluma region. In the memory, he looks at the calendar and realizes that the events that caused his phobia took place in the future.

Sharp leaves Humphrys’ office. Humphrys gives him a prescription for his fears, but he knows there is nothing that can be done for a man who is precognitive of his own death. Humphrys informs the Special Talents Agency that he has located a latent precog. The agent there is not interested. There are many latent precogs whose ability manifest only as individual nuisances.

Charles Bamberg, another psychiatrist, meets a new patient who has a driving compulsion to climb up stairs and push people off from high areas. Bamberg diagnoses this quickly as repressed hostility.

“Recall Mechanism” is a very clever precog story that attempts to explain a common mental illness as a manifestation of psychic abilities (in this case a precog). In the 1960s, Dick will have quite a bit less to say about the origins of religious belief but he will begin to explore explanations for the rise of mental illness. Martian Time-Slip is the most fully-developed of these stories, using an ability to time-shift as an explanation for autism. Broadly speaking this is an extension of Dick’s posthuman stories that show that mutants will not necessarily be in control. Impressive posthuman abilities may make people barley functional as humans, more subtle abilities still shift people enough outside of the mainstream to create what appears to us to be mental illness, neuroses, or learning disabilities. The useful sociological critique that extends from this is that people who we deem mentally ill simply have a different perspective of the world and are not really sick. A man who has a fear of falling is simply living out the last moments of his life. There is really nothing wrong with him that can be repaired with medication or therapy.

The intuitional background of “Recall Mechanism” is worth mentioning. The nuclear war, which left the world devastated, created a new role for government. Their primary goal is to carefully manage resources to reform the Earth bit by bit. Others in the government are involved with cleaning up the posthuman problem. Many people have been born with abilities since the war. Some are powerful and can be used by the Special Talents Agency. Others are threats and must be dealt with the same way as the mutated “Detroit Rats.” Yet others are in neither category and but their abilities cause them intense personal trauma. Sharp is one of these talented people who fit into this discarded category. As long as his ability only causes him personal discomfort he is not a threat to anyone else and not of use to the government. He will be left to on his own, receiving the minimal mental health care.

There is a presumption of patient protection in the psychiatrist office. Doctors and patients see each other eye to eye, instead of using the couch. If anything that the patient reports finds its way into the hands of security agencies, the psychiatrist is liable. However, as soon as Sharp leaves the office, he betrays this by calling the Special Talents Agency, informing them of his discovery. It seems that these protections only have the function of making the patient feel more comfortable. In fact, they are adjuncts of state power and part of the surveillance state.

Wikipedia page for “Recall Mechanism.”

Philip K. Dick Fan Site background on “Recall Mechanism.”

A nice little review of the story.

Phobias and psychic powers (if you believe this sort of thing).


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Knowledge, Mental Illness, Philip K. Dick, Posthumanism, Power, Time Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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