Book review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Up until a couple of years ago, I’d never read anything by Philip K Dick. In fact, for a physicist (and, yes, a massive nerd), I’ve read relatively little science fiction in general. I’ve dabbled with the classics but not much beyond. Then, in October of 2013 I had a work trip to Tokyo and I decided to take two paperbacks with me along with my Kindle. The paperbacks were Pattern Recognition by William Gibson and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick. I’m not sure what about Tokyo inspired a sci-fi binge, but I really doubt if I could have chosen two better novels to compliment my travels.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick

It wasn’t until 2016 that I got around to revisiting either author, in spite of how much I’d enjoyed both books. Earlier in 2016 I eventually got around to reading Neuromancer by Gibson and, more recently I picked up The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Dick. Interestingly, both books belong to P who, if anything, you would expect to be more sceptical of sci-fi than I am. That said, they came highly recommended, with the caveat that The Three Stigmata was extremely weird.

And it is a weird book, there’s no denying that. It takes place in a future that’s only marginally pre-apocalyptic, and that could be argued to be apocalyptic for a given value of apocalypse. The Earth is becoming unbearably hot and it’s unclear whether this is due to global warming, the expanse of the Sun or both. In any case, people are getting shipped out to cooler planets and Moons to try to colonise them. This is not desirable, the people live hopeless existences in “hovels” and most try to dodge the “draft” that puts them there, even if going can be seen as patriotic.

Once there, they fall into the abuse of a drug called Can-D. It’s used with a doll’s house style layout, the with people who take the drug becoming the doll, Pat or, if they’re men, her boyfriend Walt. When several people take the drug together they have a shared experience of being Pat or Walt. The nature of sharing the experience indicates to those who take Can-D that the experience is real, rather than being a hallucination.

Naturally, the people who sell the doll’s houses make a lot of money. They hire precogs to figure out what will become desirable ahead of time. They spend this money on evolution therapy. This is full sci-fi, you guys. Nothing halfhearted about it.

Anyway, meanwhile, the titular Palmer Eldritch has been off on a long journey to the Prox system and he returns with a rival drug Chew-Z. Now, at this point, I’ll have to leave off my synopses, because if I’m not careful I’ll give away major spoilers. Let’s just say that things get weird and that Mr Eldritch is even less normal than his name suggests.

So I enjoyed it. I’m not 100% sure what I actually think about it beyond that. I have a feeling that it’s another one I’ll keep going back to think about over the next few months. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite like it before and I think that that’s probably a good thing.

4 thoughts on “Book review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

  1. I must confess that my reading of PKD is fairly limited. I’ve read Do Androids Dream but it was so long ago that I remember nothing about it at all, and I’ve read some of his short story collections, which I tended to enjoy, but I’ve not read any other of his novels. This feels like a gap in my SF education and I should probably correct it.

    If you want more weird 1970s drug-fuelled SF, but with a more humorous bent, I can heartily recommend the works of Robert Sheckley. They tend to be absurdist with a lot of (often dark) humour to them but I find them fairly accessible.

    Liked by 1 person

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