Philip K Dick – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

On Mars, the harsh climate could make any colonist turn to drugs to escape a dead-end existence. Especially when the drug is Can-D, which translates its users into the idyllic world of a Barbie-esque character named Perky Pat. When the mysterious Palmer Eldritch arrives with a new drug called Chew-Z, he offers a more addictive experience, one that might bring the user closer to God. But in a world where everyone is tripping, no promises can be taken at face value.

This Nebula Award nominee is one of Philip K. Dick’s enduring classics, at once a deep character study, a dark mystery, and a tightrope walk along the edge of reality and illusion.

I never really got into “Three Stigmata”. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it was me first realizing the sexism in the book, where women are good pretty much for one thing. But I can let that pass. People still smoked everywhere in the book too. There’s a planet to moon videophone call that needs an operator to set up. I get that fiction is as much about the time it is written as it is about the time it is supposed to portray.
Maybe it was the plot, based on the drugs that people use to escape reality. Not sure..

Wait a minute. I know what it was. It was the ending, It didn’t really resolve for me and I have no idea what was going on. The book got too far wound up with its competing realities and it never really unwound, even reading slowly and rereading.

The interesting bits

The illegal hallucinogenic drug Can-D

Drug of choice for those colonists on Mars and other remote planets, a drug enabling its chewers to inhabit the same body and mind-stream and then travel together to an appealing illusory reality in another dimension.

“That Can-D,” he said to Miss Jurgens, “is great stuff, and no wonder it’s banned. It’s like religion; Can-D is the religion of the colonists.” He chuckled. “One plug of it, wouzzled for fifteen minutes, and-” He made a sweeping gesture. “No more hovel. No more frozen methane. It provides a reason for living. Isn’t that worth the risk and expense?”

But what is there of equal value for us? he asked himself, and felt melancholy. He had, by manufacturing the Perky Pat layouts and raising and distributing the lichen-base for the final packaged product Can-D, made life bearable for over one million unwilling expatriates from Terra. But what the hell did he get back? My life, he thought, is dedicated to others, and I’m beginning to kick; it’s not enough. There was his satellite, where Scotty waited; there existed as always the tangled details of his two large business operations, the one legal, the other not… but wasn’t there more in life than this?

He did not know. Nor did anyone else, because like Barney Mayerson they were all engaged in their various imitations of him. Barney with his Miss Rondinella Fugate, small-time replica of Leo Bulero and Miss Jurgens. Wherever he looked it was the same; probably even Ned Lark, the Narcotics Bureau chief, lived this sort of life-probably so did Hepburn-Gilbert, who probably kept a pale, tall Swedish starlet with breasts the size of bowling balls- and equally firm. Even Palmer Eldritch. No, he realized suddenly. Not Palmer Eldritch; he’s found something else. For ten years he’s been in the Prox system or at least coming and going. What did he find? Something worth the effort, worth the terminal crash on Pluto?

The legal (sort of) hallucinogenic drug Chew-Z

Taken solo for a solo trip to an alternate reality where, among other possibilities, one can revisit and remake the past in a way that influences the future.


The characters

Philip K Dick’s characters are seldom well rounded complex individuals but generally I can never guess what a PKD character is going to do or say next. The most interesting character in this book has to be the titular Palmer Eldritch himself. The most interesting thing about him is not so much who is Palmer Eldritch, but who isn’t Palmer Eldritch? The man gives the word ubiquitous not so much a new meaning as a super literal one.

“You know who Palmer Eldritch is?”


“Can you use your precog powers for something other than Pre-Fash foresight? In another month or so the homeopapes will be routinely mentioning Eldritch’s location. I’d like you to look ahead to those ‘papes and then tell me where the man is at this moment. I know you can do it.” You had better be able to, he said to himself, if you want to keep your job here. He waited, smoking his cigar, watching the girl and thinking to himself, with a trace of envy, that if she was as good in bed as she looked..

Miss Fugate whispered, “The headlines say that Palmer Eldritch is dead.” She blinked, looked around her with amazement, then slowly focused on him; she regarded him with a confused mixture of fear and uncertainty, almost palpably edging back; she retreated from him, huddled against her chair, her fingers interlocked. “And you’re accused of having done it, Mr. Bulero. Honest; that’s what the headline says.”

“You mean I’m going to murder him?”

She nodded. “But-it’s not a certainty; I only pick it up in some of the futures… do you understand? “

The Eldritch-creature wishes no harm (no spiritual harm, physical harm is another matter), but perhaps doesn’t know how to do good, in our common human sense of the word. The final fascinating thoughts on this topic go to Anne Hathaway, a neo-Christian colonist on Mars, who instructs Barney about ontology – you must not confuse the pot with the potter, she warns him. Do not confuse the creation with the creator, the matter with the substance, the vessel with the contents. And I suppose that’s all meant to imply that even the stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are just vessels in that metaphor, containing something we really can’t describe or ever know.

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