The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was the 10th and final PKD book I read last year after 40 years without reading any. I always felt as a teenager that I would get more from his books as an adult, and I think I was right. This one is a real mind-bending experience, deliciously strange and tantalizing with its ideas.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is one of the earliest PKD novels that deals overtly with drug use, hallucinations, and his thoughts on religion and the divine in our mundane lives. As usual, his near-future world is fairly dystopian, and his characters are everyday people trying to muddle through life. There are no superheroes, and his characters are filled with flaws. PKD was a champion of the downtrodden everyman, which makes sense since he himself was always struggling with poverty, mental illness, multiple divorces, and pervasive paranoia. He also had a religious experience in Feb 1974 with a mysterious girl with a fish-shaped gold pendant, from which a pink beam of light went straight into his mind. He attributed it to a communication from a completely rational alien mind that imparted a series of hallucinations and visions of early Rome and Christians. These experiences led him to write the VALIS trilogy (1978-82), which really dives deep down the rabbit hole of his religious explorations.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch came before this stage of his life, and the book evokes the usual Dickian paranoia, disorientation, and melancholy that infuses all his best works, all done with very simple, unadorned prose. In fact, the book defines the Three Stigmata as alienation, blurred reality, and despair, symbolized by a mechanical arm, artificial eyes, and steel teeth.
In his story, Barney Mayerson is a precog who works for Perky Pat Layouts. His job is to use precognition to predict which accessories will become popular for users of the illegal drug Can-D, which allows users to escape into the world of Perky Pat and Walt, two Barbie and Ken-like characters who live an easy and bourgeois existence. The drug is used pervasively by off-world colonists who live grim and miserable lives trying half-heartedly to establish human settlements, since the Earth is suffering from severe global warming.
What’s interesting is that users of Can-D think of the drug as a religious experience, and argue whether the “translation,” which lasts only a short time, is an actual physical transportation to another world, or merely an illusion. It’s also strange that the actual activities of Pat and Walt are fairly prosaic and superficial, like going to the beach, shopping, having casual sex, etc. The unique aspect of Can-D is that multiple users can occupy the person of Pat (women only) and Walt (men only), so the drug does serve as a shared communal experience, whether or not the experience is “real.”
Meanwhile, Barney’s boss Leo Bulero, a gruff and arrogant man, learns that Palmer Eldritch, a man who left the solar system 10 years ago to explore the Prox System, is coming back with a mysterious lichen that will allow him to produce a new and more insidious drug named Chew-Z. Although the details are initially not clear, it turns out that Chew-Z allows the user to be transported to an entirely different universe, one which the user himself can control and shape.
Leo Bulero, threated by this new rival drug to Can-D, decides to visit Palmer Eldritch where he is recuperating from the crash of his ship in an off-world hospital. Leo has been told by Barney and another precog that he will eventually kill Eldritch, but he decides to confront Eldritch anyway. Upon meeting him, Eldritch kidnaps Leo and forces him to try Chew-Z, and Leo discovers that Eldritch can control every aspect of the experience, even to the point of seemingly allowing Barney to go back to Earth. The illusion of reality in Chew-Z is exponentially more powerful than the brief and tawdry experience of Can-D, so Leo quickly recognizes that his business empire will be crushed if Chew-Z takes over on the off-world colonies.
Back on Earth, Barney Mayerson refuses to help Leo when he is kidnapped by Eldritch, and as a result Leo fires him. Barney has also been romantically involved with his assistant and fellow precog Rondinella, but begins to regret separating from his former wife, who now designs pottery and has a new boyfriend. As his life on Earth deteriorates, Barney decides that he needs to do penance for past wrongs and volunteers to be sent to the Mars colony by the UN (most people do everything possible to avoid this fate).
Here Barney encounters other colonists using Can-D, but cannot bring himself to use it. Instead, he is there when Palmer Eldritch’s pushers come and try to get the colonists to switch to Chew-Z. In the meantime Leo Bulero has convinced him to serve as a double-agent and wants him to try Chew-Z, then develop a medical condition (epilepsy) as a result of the drug, thereby discouraging others from switching.
At this point the plot gets extremely convoluted (yes, more so!) as several characters get caught up in Chew-Z hallucinations, during which they frequently encounter the ominous Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the mechanical arm, artificial eyes, and steel teeth. Both Barney and Leo start to travel in time and space and it’s not clear what is real and what is induced by Chew-Z.
In the middle of it all, the mysterious figure of Palmer Eldritch continues to manifest himself in the characters’ lives, seemingly all-powerful and yet trapped within the confines of his fate. It seems that Palmer Eldritch is no longer human, but instead may have become a god in the Prox system, or been taken over by something alien and powerful. Palmer’s motivations for spreading the use of Chew-Z in the solar system are unclear. In many ways, his existence seems a lonely one, and he actually tries through elaborate means to switch bodies with Barney to avoid his predestined death at the hands of Leo Bulero in the future.
Why would this powerful alien being, perhaps a manifestation of a much greater and more inscrutable god-like figure, need to avoid a death it can already foresee, and would prefer to have the dreary existence of Barney on Mars? PDK never answers this question, but instead throws out the sacrilegious idea that God may not be all-powerful, may indeed be lonely and lacking in purpose, but is still driven to manifest himself in the lives of humans, even if they do not want his intrusions. The way that PKD parallels drug-induced hallucinations with religious experiences is also quite bold, but would have found a ready audience in the tumultuous social upheavals and iconoclasm of the 1960s.
In the end, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a very strange reality-bending book that spins off more ideas in 240 pages than many novelists conceive of in their entire careers. And while the reader is not spoon-fed any answers in the end, he is given plenty of food for thought, which makes this an excellent introduction to one of SF’s greatest minds.