Classic review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

What do ogres and Dick’s books have in common?  They are like onions: they have several layers, and when you peel one off, another will lie underneath.  The layers in Dick’s book can be very different: they may have little in common with the higher, more superficial layers, and can take the reader in a surprisingly different direction.  The one commonality they possess is that each one makes you think about the book for a long time after finishing it.  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is no different in this regard.  What makes it stand out is its relative accessibility compared to many other works by Dick, and its timelessness.  Even today, people can find parallels or even inspiration in this novel.  And I’m afraid someone may have found this book motivating…

The world in the early 21st century is quite different in this story than what we see from our windows.  Global warming has heated the planet to unbearable temperatures, and people can’t leave their cooled houses or offices during most of the day.  The all-powerful UN has managed to colonize most planets in the solar system.  Unfortunately, life on these colonies is harsh and mind-numbing, to the point where the UN has to forcibly draft people for emigration.  To keep their sanity, colonists chew the illegal drug Can-D.  Chewing this, in conjunction with a doll playset – think of a Barbie doll set for adults – transfers the user’s consciousness to the doll.  Taking Can-D is a communal activity, and people are transferred to the same playset where they have to co-habit the dolls with other consciousnesses and work together to realize their brief fantasy life.

Both the drug and playset are provided by a company run by Leo Bolero, a gruff and callous businessman.  The drug is grown illegally, but thanks to plentiful bribes to the UN, he is able to distribute it.  The playset is produced legally.  The company takes the most fashionable household item designs and miniaturizes them for the dolls.  To find out what would become fashionable is the work of people like Barney Mayerson, a fashion precog.  Precogs can glimpse the future, primarily by visualizing headlines of future newspapers, and the best of them can even estimate the level of success.  Mayerson is the best in his profession, but miserable in his ambition and personal life.  He abused and later divorced his wife, which he still regrets, started an affair with his assistant who has the ambition to replace him, and tries to pressure Bolero to promote him, which later spectacularly backfires.

During this time, the spaceship carrying the richest person in the Solar System and an avid explorer, Palmer Eldritch, crashes on Pluto on its way back from Proxima Centauri.  Bolero soon suspects that Eldritch wants to move onto his turf, with a new drug.  His precogs tell him that there is a good chance that Bolero would be accused of murdering Eldritch, so Bolero sneaks into his opponent’s compound to do just that.  He is captured, however, and injected with the new drug, Chew-Z.  He finds himself in a kind of virtual reality, which is maintained without the dollhouse required for his own drug, and he is all alone here, save for Eldritch and whatever his mind conjures.  After the drug wears off, Eldritch lets him go with the instruction to turn over his company to Eldritch.

Bolero returns to Earth and fires Mayerson, whom he blames for not mounting a rescue operation.  Mayerson, still hounded by guilt for divorcing his wife, loses not only his job, but also his mistress who takes his place in the company.  He decides to volunteer for colony service and is shipped to Mars.  There, he is quickly tracked down by Bolero’s people, who convince him to take the new drug, follow it up with a virus, and blame his sickness on Chew-Z.  Bolero wants to launch a legal challenge to outlaw the drug, as well as convince other users that his product is safer.

Mayerson goes only as far as taking the drug.  What follows is layers upon layers of virtual realities, each with Eldritch as the only other seemingly real being, with little chance to escape back to the real world.  Mayerson finds out that Eldritch is not actually the person who left Earth, but a being Eldritch met in the open space.  This being, a form of a lichen, perpetuates itself by infecting others when they eat its parts, in the form of Chew-Z.  Mayerson also travels in time and finds out that everything would turn out right: Bolero would kill Eldritch, and he’d eventually get his old job back.  When Mayerson comes to, he finds Bolero standing over him, demanding that he ingests the virus.  Mayerson refuses and Bolero leaves.  On the way back to Earth, Bolero sees that all people around him, including himself, are slowly turning into Palmer Eldritch and realizes that he is still stuck in the drug induced fantasy he was forced into so much earlier in the book.

For such a small book, there’s a lot to unpack.  The story is very dense and convoluted, and yet eminently readable and entertaining.  The main protagonists are fairly authentic, with their own motivations and character development.  It’s these motivations that makes them all sympathetic to the reader, and given that none comes to any actual harm or even the threat of harm, they don’t seem all that important in the context of the book.  What matters are the multiple layers of meanings, which I’ll try to peel away, one by one.

I won’t insult the reader with the most superficial layer, that of a straightforward science fiction story of global warming, an all-powerful UN and the miserable life of colonists.  The menace that the UN poses, and the misery of leaving Earth are such staples in Dick’s works, that I assumed he created this story on autopilot.  Right underneath this layer is the question of what is real.  This is where I think Stigmata is more accessible than, say, Ubik, as Dick keeps the tree of realities relatively flat.  He introduces time and spatial travel to throw the reader off a little, but it’s still relatively easy to follow.  The big reveal that Bolero is hallucinating most of the book is telegraphed throughout the story, so nobody should have been surprised by this.

Speaking of the layers of reality, the next step is to look at the virtual reality itself, and this is where the actual fun begins.  Dick calls these drug-induced hallucinations “translation”, but in our modern world the effect is indistinguishable from virtual reality.  Even here we have multiple layers of meanings, with the most superficial one being simply a world where each person would be isolated, and which would be ruled by its all-powerful creator.  When I said in my introduction that some people may have found inspiration in this book, I meant this element.  I am afraid that this has become the blueprint for Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta.  All the signs are there: He made people addicted to the communal spirit of Facebook.  Then he isolated them by taking out most of the community and replacing it with content that his algorithms forced on his users.  And now he wants to capture all the isolated people in a virtual world that his company would control.  Some may call this coincidence, others Dick’s genius in guessing at the future, but I prefer to stay paranoid and believe that Zuckerberg got his ideas from this book.

Quite frankly, for me even the virtual reality layer wasn’t all that interesting, compared to the religious aspect of the book.  That there would be religion involved is already evident from the title.  Eldritch’s stigmata aren’t oozing wounds, but very visible body modifications, which seem to spread among everyone in the world.  Seeing them on other people seems to indicate that the person is still under the influence of the drug.  And once again, this is superficial to the overall religious theme.  It barely serves as crutches to the reader, to realize the characters are still hallucinating.  The true theme of the book is holy communion.

Palmer Eldritch wants to become humanity’s new God, in all senses except one.  If he indeed is a being from outside our solar system, and if people really chew parts of his body, then this communion is quite literal.  Where Christians eat wafers that represent the body of Christ, Chew-Z addicts eat the real body of God.  Eldritch is not our God, however, he is the anti-God.  He is trying to reverse everything.  Can-D represents Christianity.  Holy communion takes place in churches, with like-minded individuals.  It is surrounded by rituals and idols, and these along with its communal spirit offer great peace of mind for its participants.  Chewing Can-D is also a communal experience, with the doll house and activities with the dolls serving as church, idols and rituals.  On the other hand, Chew-Z isolates every person alone with its new God, and is completely free-form, with people seemingly able to create complete world for themselves.  Mayerson, if he is real, opts to create a sort of personal hell for himself, and Eldritch shows up there only to mock him.  The implication is that Eldritch is actually the Devil.  He goes as far as to suggest that where God was willing to die for people, he expects people to die for him.  I personally wouldn’t call Eldritch the Devil: he seems to run parallel to the Christian God, not against Him.  Dick’s genius lies in capturing some of the most important aspects of the world’s largest religion in a highly amusing yet pertinent way and presenting something completely different to contrast it with.  And the reader is free to think of all the implications until the nightmares come…

I got carried away by the book’s analysis, and the drugs are beginning to wear off, so I’ll have to be brief for the reminder of my review.  I just mentioned that the book was highly amusing, and I stand by it.  Despite the very heavy subject matter full of global warming, divorce, promiscuity, drug abuse and more, the book is full of such ridiculous setups that I had to laugh out loud.  From a ghost dog coming to pee on a monument dedicated to Leo Bolero, to genetic manipulation that makes people’s heads either swell or turn them into Neanderthals, the visuals are perfectly suitable for a story that is largely hallucinated by one of the protagonists.

And yet, everything somehow fits together.  This is less about throwing loads of sticky brown stuff on a wall and seeing what sticks, and more about weaving a very tight tapestry of colorful characters and several layers of the same story.  Dick’s writing is impeccable, his style is dense and yet quite accessible, and his insights worm their way into the readers’ brains and sink their hooks there for a long time after the book is over.  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of the most important science fiction books one should read.

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