Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

This is my fourth time reading what I consider my favorite among the 11 Philip K Dick books I’ve read so far (with the possible exception of A Scanner Darkly which I really need to reread). For twisting your mind around and turning it inside out, you could do way worse. His characters always seem on the verge of discovering some truth about some form of gnostic spirituality. There’s always a point after which you can’t be sure if everything is actually happening or if it’s a drug or illness induced hallucination. You can really break your brain on his books. They require a lot of thought. Sure the dialog and prose can be clunky (particularly if you bookend him by reading Gene Wolfe and Annie Dillard on the left side and Kelly Link and Caitlin Kiernan on the right, as I did this time), but if you’re reading PKD for the dialog you’re doing it wrong.

There are so many ideas crammed into Three Stigmata. It’s a future in which global warming keeps everyone indoors, except the rich on vacation at the poles. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but the people live subsistence level lives in hovels (they call them hovels!). There is a draft to send eligible people to these colonies, as the conditions are terrible, yet if humanity is to survive the heat death of the planet, they must go to space. The drafted colonists use a drug called Can-D. It puts their consciousness into essentially a dollhouse with two characters, Perky Pat and her boyfriend. The experience is real, though  you have to buy the layout and the dolls in order to experience it. There’s a brisk business in miniaturized household items for use in the layouts. It’s a communal experience as there are only the two characters and when Can-D is chewed together everyone goes into one character or the other. A sort of religion sprouts up in which people argue about whether or not they are literally translated into Perky Pat or whether it is a hallucination (a transubstantiation). There is Evolution therapy that makes people smarter, though it affects their appearances. It starts to get weird when an entrepreneur who was out of the solar system, Palmer Eldritch, comes back changed from his encounter with aliens from the next system over (or something else). He brings with him Chew-Z (Be choosy. Chew Chew-Z!), which offers another order of experience, and a competing religious experience.

The setup allows PKD to examine his themes of drug induced religious experience and variations on the theme of gnostic Christianity. I’m not entirely sure I understand the intricacies of his religious thought. I am sure that it is an incredibly entertaining ride, which I will return to again.


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