The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick

Interesting book. A bit too many worlds. Drugs to keep population happy/content.

Summary: Palmer Eldritch’s three stigmata are his artifical arm, steel teeth and electronic eyes. He is a merchant adventurer lately returned with something valuable from Proxima Centauri to a globally overheated Earth. The UN (a regulatory body replacing government as such) is protecting him like a state secret.

Corporate boss Leo Bulero is the head of the Perky Pat empire, which employs “precog” telepaths to read the future and design business strategy. Bulero’s business is the Barbie and Ken-type Perky Pat dolls and accessories used by planetary colonists to ease their misery and remind them of a materially idyllic Earth. In conjunction with the Perky Pat toys, colonists chew Can-D, an illegal drug which allows them to imagine themselves as the main characters in the Perky Pat world. Bulero’s company secretly controls Can-D and publicly sells endless accessories for the miniature twosome.

Barney Mayerson, a high-ranking precog, predicts that Bulero will murder Eldritch, who has discovered a drug more attractive and powerful than Can-D. In confronting Eldritch, hoping to kill him, Bulero is plunged into powerfully realistic hallucinatory worlds clearly controlled by his bionic rival. Gradually he suspects that his antagonist is not only God and the devil, but that he and everyone else is an aspect of Eldritch. The material world becomes optional. What is real? Can Eldritch be resisted? Are our souls our own? It is to Dick’s credit that as his hasty standard English and cardboard characters disintegrate in his wake, we are still left with sturdy philosophical questions.

Dick’s speed-enhanced gift was to capture the illusion sometimes encountered by the deadline-conscious hack, hyped on adrenaline, playing with transcen- dental notions that creator and creations, illusions and reality are one. As with hallucinogens, the condition can cause obsession and psychosis, a distinct sense that the book is writing you. You become merely a medium. Common sense usually brings you back to shared reality. But in the case of Dick or L Ron Hubbard, inventor of Scientology, the experience formed the basis of a rough and ready belief system resembling Buddhism or Manichaeism. Does the mind control reality? Do good and evil emanate from the same source? What do we worship and why?

As he followed these themes, Dick’s novels became increasingly incoherent and, for me, scarcely readable. Hacking out book after book, he gave himself no time to discover a more idiosyncratic structure or style, the search for which characterised the so-called SF New Wave and gave us sophisticated American visionaries such as Thomas M Disch, John Sladek and Samuel R Delany.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch ends with a question about identity. Unfortunately, I had to leaf back through the book before I could understand the question because the characters involved were so hard to tell apart. It could be true, as Dick so frequently suggested, that we are all actors playing out the dream of a great director in the sky. In this case, given the illusion of free will, I think I’d rather be in the movie.