Philip K. Dick is one author that never lets his characters get in the way of his ideas.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is often touted as one of Dick’s best books. Having no basis of comparison other than a dimly-remembered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the more recently-reviewed collection of short stories, I can’t really say for sure how I’d have rated it in the scheme of Dick’s literary pantheon. However, this book does feel very much a mature, book-length version of one of his experimental short stories, where he has the length and breadth to extrapolate his ideas into their fullest extent.
Stigmata is a nicely wrapped package of a book, an expression of what seems to be two of PKD’s greatest literary strengths – thematic depth and a fine control of plot. The world of Stigmata is painted in bold brushstrokes that don’t have much in the way of fine detail but feature a disconcerting, almost satirical distortion of our (or, at least, PKD’s) reality. And the plot meanders crazily through reality and unreality, virtual and real, jumping forward and backward on the timeline, but PKD maintains precarious control throughout this entire ride, even as he adds his inchoate ruminations on religion, drugs, media culture, environmentalism, and hierarchy into the mix.
In the world of Stigmata, Earth has become a broiling hothouse, and the UN ‘drafts’ people to become colonists and live in hardship on barely-habitable worlds in an effort to ensure human survival. These colonists, resenting their reduced circumstances, turn to a drug called Can-D that, when ingested, makes them hallucinate being back on Earth. The catch is, they have to rely on intricately designed model “layouts”, which they build and populate with miniature props and two dolls, invariably named Perky Pat and Connie Companion. When they hallucinate they project themselves into these doll avatars. The better your props, the cushier your hallucinated surroundings. All hell breaks loose, however, when industrialist Palmer Eldritch, recently returned from a decade long trip into interstellar space, returns with a strange new drug called Chew-Z that is even more potent: it allows the user to create and live in their own reality, compressing time so that they can subjectively experience a million years in the space of a single second of use – eternal life by another name…
It’s a weird, dystopian place, this world of Perky Pats, and to me lacks a certain kind of corporeality or substance, but is nonetheless acutely aware of its social milieu and zeitgeist. If there were a drug like Chew-Z that allowed one to become a character in a dollhouse, I’m not sure how its mechanics would operate. Why is it necessary to be Perky Pat? How would people of varying ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations project themselves into the world? Why are there only two characters, Perky Pat and Connie Companion? Nevertheless, PKD was being prescient; I can think of no better modern day equivalent than people who watch shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, because what is Perky Pat, really, than the ultimate expression of reality TV: vicariously experiencing the moneyed lifestyle through the foggy lens (or screen, as the case may be) of irreal sensoria? There are a dozen other features of PKD’s future world that have the same wry, satirical potential, even when viewed through modern lens.
I doubt that in Dick’s time, the idea of simulated realities was a completely original thing – but the way PKD has weaved it into the narrative is quite adept. Palmer Eldritch – what an appropriate name – is the enigmatic antagonist of this story, and his three stigmata – his mechanical arm, artificial eye and metallic jaw – are icons that signify his deity-like status in the book, simultaneously God and the Devil and something in between, an eldritch being, ancient and out of the deeps of space. He controls the web of reality through his illicit and potent drug, but the reality is not some abstract and removed plane – the simulated reality is one that somehow or other exists interlaced in real time and real space. From the reader’s perspective, everything is real, but everything has the potential to be irreal. PKD maintains this tension in the latter half of the book, to unsettling effect.
Of course, PKD’s characters are perhaps his weakest link. Most of them are interchangeable avatars, ciphers that he imports from story to story, world-weary types, cigar-chomping tycoons, blonde bombshells, icons of 60s Americana implanted without much refinement into an otherwise exotic new world. His protagonist, Barney Mayerson, despite going through a kind of crisis of character and recovering at the end, doesn’t quite ring true as a character, in terms of his motivations. I haven’t quite read a PKD character that’s been anything more than a talking vehicle for expostulating his ideas and themes. Not even Palmer Eldritch escapes this trap – he is memorable not because he is a character but because he is a mythic creation in the style of Cthulhu or a Godzilla (well, Godzilla might be a bad example). PKD was a man of his time, but to read his books is to read of sexual, racial and hierarchical dynamics that are, by today’s standards, rather antediluvian. But that’s no fault of his, I suppose.
I wouldn’t say Stigmata is a particularly enjoyable romp, but it is an important showcase of PKD’s literary gift, and a book that will ensnare you in its ideas and leave you wondering at how prescient – like his precog characters – Dick could be.
I give this book 4 out of 5 Dr. Smiles