“It takes a certain amount of courage, he thought, to face yourself and say with candor, I’m rotten. I’ve done evil and I will again. It was no accident; it emanated from the true, authentic me.” -Philip K. Dick
eldritch adj. – unearthly; weird; strange
Okay, I’m halfway through my Exegesis-plus-12-novels PKD read along, so to celebrate I want to start this review with a bit of research. As any fan will probably tell you, Philip K. Dick wrote a lot. And by “a lot”, I mean 48 novels*, and 121 short stories. That is a staggering output of work for any artist, especially considering Dick died aged only 53. (*Sadly, three of those novels’ manuscripts have been lost.)
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is the thirtieth (30th!) novel Dick wrote, reportedly written between Clans of the Alphane Moon and The Zap Gun. [source] (Publishing dates are different.) It was one of two books by Dick nominated for the 1966 Nebula Award. The other book was Doctor Bloodmoney, but they both lost out to Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Three Stigmata is a typically weird Dickian tale involving the fragile nature of reality, drug use, the plight of the “little man”, planetary colonization, and malign alien invasion. Presciently, Dick envisages 21st Century Earth as an overpopulated planet with a dangerously high daytime temperature, as well as a populace addicted to consumerism. This extreme weather and overpopulation has forced the United Nations to issue a draft for colonizing Mars and other nearby planets and moons.
“He paid the cab, hopped from it, and scuttled across a short open space for a ramp; briefly, naked sunlight touched him and he felt – or imagined – himself sizzle.” (p.16)
The book opens with Barney Mayerson receiving his draft notice. Barney is a “precog consultant” with P.P. Layouts’, a company that makes miniature accessories for the best-selling doll “Perky Pat”, a kind of alternate Barbie popular with adults. Through ingestion of the illegal drug Can-D, people can experience Perky Pat and her accessory-filled fantasy world as reality. (Is this what happens when you cross The Matrix with Ken & Barbie?..)
“The doll, he reflected, which had conquered man as man at the same time had conquered the planets of the Sol system. Perky Pat, the obsession of the colonists. What a commentary on colonial life.” (p.13)
The mysterious Palmer Eldritch enters the story on his return from a distant galaxy. There are rumours he has brought something back with him, a challenge to the reality-altering Can-D. Eldritch is offering a better, more intense and realistic experience with his product Chew-Z. But at what cost to its consumers?…
This is a book that often left me questioning what just happened, causing me to reread earlier parts of the story. I don’t mind doing this, especially if the story is worth it, but I struggled with this one. It feels like Dick tried to fit too many ideas into the 207 pages of the book. Some of these ideas are brilliant but they’re not developed enough to create a truly satisfying PKD story. At times, the story made me think of the attention span of a child riding a sugar-high.
I realize how highly Three Stigmata is rated by fans, and I also realize that I’m setting myself up for a lot of criticism, but I wanted to give my honest opinion about it. It could simply be too smart for me? I wanted to love it but I didn’t.
Dick had this to say about the novel’s genesis:
“… The Palmer Eldritch novel came out of an actual mystical experience, lasting almost a month, in which I saw the face of evil hovering over the landscape, and the three stigmata were aspects of him that I saw – I mean, objectively, literally – in particular the slotted, empty eyes.”