Philip K. Dick – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

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It’s not like I’ve only just read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Dick’s first sci-fi novel sale to publishers Doubleday in the mid-1960s after winning the Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle. I think I’ve read it four times now, but I haven’t actually written about it in much detail on this blog before. By the way, I expect that there will be spoilers below.

So why now? Well I just re-read it after wanting to check that it is one of my favourite sci-fi books by Dick, or indeed any author. Our team at work were recently asked as part of a team-building exercise to say what their favourite book was and why. After some moaning and groaning about what an impossible question that is for most bibliophiles, I passed up 1984 and Brave New World in favour of a Dick book given that he is my favourite author in the genre (closely followed by Iain M Banks and China Mieville). As it happens I knew a colleague of mine was likely to choose one of these as his favourite anyway, so we’d get some representation for at least one of them. So I nominated The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and then thought ‘oh, I better double check, in case someone asks me about it’.

It transpired that during the course of reading the book I decided to make my life easier and changed my nomination to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as I’ve read it about six times and having seen the films a few times each it would be far easier for me to argue my case. It was gratifying to see Brave New World listed in the meeting alongside the usual worthy suspects of The Kite Runner, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Stand, Catcher in the Rye etc. and also amusing to see Stigmata (I call it that for the sake of brevity) still in there like the phantom of Eldritch which seems to pervade the solar system by the end of the book.

Anyway that’s the reason why it pops up now, but I see no reason why in the future I might not re-read some of my favourite books by Dick that I’ve missed talking about here and subject you to some similar rambles. I might even read The Velveteen Rabbit which got two nominations and obviously must be something worth a gander.

Stigmata, written in a hugely productive and amphetamine-fuelled period for Dick, mostly revolves around the idea of a drug called Can-D which is used by drafted colonists of Mars and other moons and planets of the solar system to escape from the awful banality of their lives. Can-D used in conjunction with miniature ‘layouts’ much like dollhouse accessories, but which are real full-size objects which have gone through some unexplained miniaturisation process, transports the drug-takers into the lives of Perky Pat and her boyfriend. All the women go into Perky Pat and all the men into her lover. Things can get quite saucy during these communal trips but mostly the Mars colonists featured in the story end up arguing among themselves about what they want to do and before they know it their time on this imaginary Terra runs out as the effects of the drug wear off.

So when a new drug comes along in the form of Chew-Z which doesn’t need the expensive PP layouts to work and gives a much more intense yet singular trip to those who take it, the boss of PP-Layouts Leo Bulero who also secretly manufactures Can-D see’s his monopoly is under threat. Chew-Z has been brought to the solar system by a mysterious character called Palmer Eldritch who during the course of his life has had his teeth replaced by a stainless steel set, his eyes by a strip much Geordie’s on Star Trek The Next Generation (is it Geordie? – being a Star Wars fan I’m not allowed to Google it) and one of his arms by a black metallic robot arm. These are his three stigmata.

The religious reference is not just an offhand pun as this book evolves into somewhat of a discussion about God’s role in the Terran’s life and the troubling thought that Eldritch by virtue of being able to control and appear within the Chew-Z users’ hallucinations, or are they altered realities?, has become a God himself. There’s also this idea that aliens from the Prox star system are actually in control of Eldritch via the drug and are using him as a bridge into the Sol system to invade. Or is it not aliens as such, but God himself? The choice of character names in the book are also no accident with Palmer and Leo having religious connotations.

A lot of these ideas are never truly explained but told with such vim, vigour and flare by Dick that you are not left at the end of the book scratching your head but rather gasping for breath. It’s a wild ride through layers and layers of realities and as such a tour de force of Dick’s imagination and keen writing skills. I’d say even if you don’t like 1960s sci-fi this is a must-read for any true sci-fi fan. Dick doesn’t so much throw the kitchen sink into the story as suggest that after two doses of Chew-Z you can be the kitchen sink for a second-long eternity if you so chose.

I feel that I shouldn’t need to, but I will also, point out that Dick has his characters, when they’re not trying to steal each others jobs or get back with their ex-wives, making Skype video calls, using artificial gravity, talking to bot therapists in suitcases (a laptop if you will) and living on the moon and Mars way ahead of any of it being real science. You never get the sense from Dick that he’s struggling to think of stuff, more like he’s struggling to cram it all into the pages. He was certainly redefining the sci-fi genre and while Valis (another in the Gollancz SF MASTERWORKS series) is perhaps his best exploration of metaphysical worlds Stigmata is perhaps more fun.

John Lennon read Stigmata and wanted to make a film of it and what a far out film it would make. Dick himself was terrified of the final manuscript and couldn’t bring himself to check the galleys. I read a quote from the aforementioned China Mieville, who at times can be just as out there as Dick, saying that when he read this book he felt something like despair in that all the rules and concepts of literature he once knew were ‘finished’. He also said it was infuriating to be asked by the Guardian (I think) to only chose on Dick book as part of a Top 10 sci-fi list. I know how he feels.

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