Science fiction and fantasy


The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

by Philip K. Dick

In a future Earth that's so hot it's barely habitable, life is getting harder for Barney Mayerson. He has precognitive abilities, and his job involves foretelling the future of fashion and seeing which objects will sell well, and which will flop. Only now his foresight is telling him he's likely to lose his job to his attractive young assistant, Roni.

Barney works for P. P. Layouts, the company that manufactures an illegal drug, Can-D. They also make miniature layouts to help users visualise a shared illusory world. In effect they are selling doll's houses, and when people chew Can-D they hallucinate that they are the doll.

The product is incredibly popular in the colonies, where people are desperate for an escape from the crushing monotony of their lives. Earth is getting overcrowded, so people are drafted to live on Mars, Titan, and other undesirable outposts of the solar system. Getting drafted is viewed as something akin to a death sentence, since it's such a miserable existence.

Palmer Eldritch returns from an interstellar trip with an alien drug that threatens the monopoly of Can-D. Chew-Z is a different type of experience, longer lasting and more mind-altering. P. P. Layouts are so disturbed by this competitor that they desperately scheme to sabotage it, even down to a plan to murder Eldritch.

When characters in this novel aren't taking or selling recreational drugs, they are expanding their minds in other ways. Some people try to get ahead by fast-forwarding evolution. Bubbleheads are people who have paid to have Evolutionary Therapy. Super-smart and freaky in appearance, with thick hides to withstand the burning sun, they are the next stage of mankind's evolution. Barney's ex-wife Emily and her new husband Richard plan to take this, but the procedure isn't without risk.

The science is hokum, and even in 1964 the author should have known this. But this novel isn't concerned with warning us about real technologies, it's a metaphor. People are too keen to expand their minds, to mess with their heads in various ways, and never mind the consequences. The metaphors are also religious, as Barney moves from the hellishly hot conditions on Earth to the cool of the heavens, where a religious resurgence is sweeping the colonists. God and salvation play a part in this story, although they do so in very unexpected ways.

Pessimism and despair pervade The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, as though we are seeing life through the eyes of the chemically depressed. Hope is crushed, people are flawed, and the situation can only ever get worse. Like some great drug-induced nightmare, the story seems to make less and less sense as it moves towards a climax. The effect of the Chew-Z means that we're never quite sure whether what we are reading is part of a character's reality, or just another hallucination. Intense, dark, confusing and spiritual, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is the literary equivalent of a fierce trip.

4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

Book Details

Decade: 1960s

Categories: Books
Science fiction

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