Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets. The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth. The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first. The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there. When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas. What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.
I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up. I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon. Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.
The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be. Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot. Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets. Colonizing the other planets is just that bad. So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists. The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away. This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.
I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book. Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives. One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide. But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D. The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around. Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.
Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z. Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality. The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it. The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.
It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that. People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him). However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening. The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.
All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen. I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head. Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy. They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks. For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read. Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t. For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.
Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability. Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us? A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies. It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.
4 out of 5 stars