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The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick: (A Book Review)

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch: a novel by Philip K. Dick

The edition I have in my hand is in paperback, re-presented by Vintage Books (A Division of Random House) in 1991. We are informed that it was originally published in 1964. The story is about 230 pages in length.

I would say that the relatively concise length of the book, combined with Mr. Dick's skill with prose---in which he makes the art of writing seem much easier than it is---means that, if you want, you could very well finish the book in one sitting.

Now then, as you may know, Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a prolific writer of science fiction; and, as I never tire of saying: Philip K. Dick is a writer for those who think that they do not like science fiction. As some of you, out there, reading this know, I have my reasons for saying that---reasons, however, which need not detain us here.

You know, on the back cover of this Vintage Books paperback edition there is an un-attributed blurb: "In this wildly disorienting funhouse of a novel, populated by God-like---or perhaps Satanic---takeover artists and corporate psychics, Philip K. Dick explores mysteries that were once the property of St. Paul and Aquinas. His wit, compassion, and knife-edged irony make The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch moving as well as genuinely visionary."

I consider most of that quote to be---quite literally---true. The Three Stigmata is, in my opinion, literally a "wildly disorienting funhouse of a novel." "Funhouse" is an apt term. To understand why this is so you must understand that Mr. Dick's science fiction contained two apparent, basic preoccupations of the author.

One of those, as it pertains to the "funhouse" nature of his work, is the question: What is reality? Is the reality we apparently live in the only one? What if reality is a multiverse, but a kind of infinite onion with infinitely peel-able layers? Maybe there are times when different realities converge, mix and match, as it were.

That is a basic thing you should know, if and when you approach the science fiction of Philip K. Dick for the first time.

It is also literally true that The Three Stigmata is a novel "populated by God-like---or perhaps Satanic---takeover artists and corporate psychics." That has to do with the specific plot of the novel, which I will come to in a moment.

There is a second preoccupation displayed in the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, which can be distilled down to the question: How do we know that God is real?

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is no exception to that "rule" of the two preoccupations of the science fiction of Philip K. Dick: What is reality? and How do we know that God is real?

The basic story

First of all, the story is set in the far distant future; and having been published in the sixties, the story is prescient in that it posits and Earth that is gradually becoming two hot for human beings to live on. Indeed, in this world its getting so that its just about too hot to venture outside at twelve noon.

In this world there is a technological infrastructure, imagined by Philip K. Dick, designed to help humanity cope with "climate change," or "global warming," if you will. Human life is being driven more and more underground---quite literally!

The second track of the human response to climate change, in "The Three Stigmata," is to search out cooler planets for humanity to live on. The bulk of effort, for now, is focused on the planet Mars, as the most promising. But the species cannot just move there. The planet must be prepared for human habitation.

This is, apparently, a slow, tedious-seeming, and painstaking process, involving squads of colonists, who are picked by a (military-style) "draft" system. Anyway, there is not the Star Trek-kian system of so-called "terra-forming" in evidence, which may explain why the work of the colonists in "The Three Stigmata" seem to us to be so "slow, tedious-seeming, and painstaking."

The colonists naturally find their Martian work to be very lonely, tedious, and isolating. You see, they really need something to take the edge off the loneliness and boredom and sheer hopelessness of it all.

Enter "Can-D," a narcotic, hallucinogenic substance which "translates" those who chew it into, essentially living action figures, inhabiting an "action figure" landscape.

What does that mean?

Well, "Can-D" is both a narcotic and a focusing instrument, a detailed model of some location where you would rather be than where you are. For the colonists on Mars, this is a place somewhere on Earth, a representation of a geographically ideal location somewhere on Earth.

When one chews the Can-D, his mind is taken from his body (astral projection, if you like) and projected as a being living in the landscape model, somewhere much more pleasant than the barren, undeveloped Martian landscape.

Can-D is manufactured and distributed by a corporation called P.P. Layouts. The "P.P." stands for "Perky Pat."

There is another, rival substance called "Chew-Z," manufactured and distributed by P.P. Layout's arch-nemesis, Palmer Eldritch, who, rather surprisingly given the title of the novel, comes across as the "Satanic" villain, which is to say, "takeover artist."

So, in one sense you have warring corporations. For those who know what I'm talking about, let me say that "The Three Stigmata" has a vibe very much like "The Space Merchants" (1952) by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth.

And in another sense we're looking at warring drug dealers.

One last thing

As I said, it is literally true, in my opinion, that "The Three Stigmata" is, indeed, a "wildly disorienting funhouse of a novel." For those of you familiar with such movies as "The Sixth Sense" (Bruce Willis and Hayley Joel Osment) and "The Others" (Nicole Kidman), you may, similarly, find yourself wondering ('Who's haunting who?'), as you read Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch."

Thank you for reading!


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