Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata Philip K Dick CoverThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch [1964]★★★★1/2 

This is my fourth Philip K. Dick novel (previously, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968], A Scanner Darkly [1977] and Ubik [1969]). This story is set in future and follows Barney Mayerson, an employee of P.P (Perky Pat) Layouts, a firm which specialises in providing layouts which can be used for drug experience when customers (those in space colonies) take illegal hallucinatory drug Can-D, which can recreate a perfect life when one takes it. Mayerson finds out that Palmer Eldritch, a man who went to another star system some years previous, has returned to the Solar System and is bringing with him an even more potent drug than Can-D, and it is called Chew-Z. However, soon suspicions mount that the experience with Chew-Z may not be what everybody thinks it is. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is messier and more chaotic that some of the author’s later, better known novels, but it is still an entertaining read with all the expected typically Philip K. Dick philosophical considerations and thought-provoking situations. Even if the world he presents this time is tackier and crazier than usual, the author still manages to suspend our disbelief as we plunge deep into this addictive and well-constructed futuristic world where our usual understanding of reality is turned upside down.

As is the case with some other Philip K. Dick novels, from the very first page, we are thrust straight into the heart of the fast-paced narrative in this futuristic world, and it may take a couple of pages to catch one’s breath and realise what is really going on. The future described is not altogether rosy: Earth’s temperature is rising and some people are deported to live on other planets where life is hard and meaningless. Futuristic technology is also abound, such as a homeopape, a news-giving device or digital newspaper, and there is a process of evolving humans to the next stage in evolution. This is also the world of interstellar travel, and precogs, people who can anticipate certain future events as possible options. These are employed by certain organisations who want to have an advantage over their competitors.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch deals with philosophical questions, but they are presented in an entertaining fashion as part of the story and one, therefore, hardly notices that the message overall is serious. This book by Philip K. Dick slides into this experience of paranoia fast, asking if there is a bigger entity out there which may be controlling people’s lives. Some Philip K. Dick books are about such paranoia, but pigeonholing his books in that way is unhelpful. Stephen King once wrote that “perfect paranoia is perfect awareness.” The leading characters in this story have that awareness, constantly questioning their reality, trying to differentiate between what is real and what is their hallucinatory experience when they take drugs. This task is not as easy as it may appear, and this issue is actually more topical now when we see advances in quantum mechanics which actually state that time is essentially an illusion and what we believe as real may not actually be what is out there (see also the mystery of the double-slit experiment). The author plays with space-time continuum, paradoxes, as well as with our expectations in general. Other typically Philip K. Dick’s themes are also present, including organisation vs. individual battle, anti-materialism, and free will vs. determinism debate.

Drugs and drug hallucinations are, of course, the main preoccupation of the author in this novel, and he makes a point that drugs have a powerful grip on the user, who resorts to them to escape the horrors and traumas of his or her daily life. Through the narrative, the author seems to be asking a question – if hallucinations are indistinguishable from reality, does the difference really matter for the one who experiences it? One philosophical theory says that we can only be sure of our own experience because we can only verify our own existence and we should simply take other people’s word that they also exist and experience life.  

One of the weaknesses of this book is that it is more confusing as to its overall and main theme and messier in narrative than Philip K. Dick’s later books. The right word would probably be “crazier”- this book is “crazier” than the three others I have read and, to me, it seems to fuse themes from A Scanner Darkly (drug world) with themes from Ubik (controlled alternate reality). Like with my previous read – Ubik, I thought the main character or theme – Palmer Eldritch and his Three Stigmata were unclear and caricaturishly presented. The subject of the title remains almost obscure and certainly under-thought. Some events in the novel are also happening too quickly, while quieter, introspective moments are to be found near the end of the book.

Fast-paced and relentlessly entertaining, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch may be a crazy ride, but it is also as intelligent and deep as only Philip K. Dick could master. The readers will need to be prepared to take a quite large leap of faith, but, when they do, they will be rewarded since the world they would step into is vivid, magnetic and ceaselessly inventive, with nice surprises along the way.

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

    1. Thanks! Yes, I agree, it is certainly much more confusing than other novels I read by him. I guess I like them because they are mentally stimulating and make one think about the nature of human experiences.

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  1. This is actually one of my favourite PKD (but I have a few). Agreed it is messy and somethings are underdeveloped but PKD had some great ideas that he casually tossed in and then left which other writers would spend series on. Also the Gnostic elements are very very defined in Three Stigmata. The book is so trippy and PKD hadn’t even taken acid at this time. Very good review Diana.

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    1. Thank you! Even with all its “messiness”, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I think some people miss out on something special when they stop reading PKD after their first book Electric Sheep, after seeing Blade Runner, of course.

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        1. I have not read any biographies, but I know he was troubled. Did not he think that the American government was after him (paranoia), and it actually turned out to be partly true? And yes, I think craziness and genius often go together.

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          1. Towards the end he was consumed by paranoia, just sat at home listening to Bach will hallucinating swirling cosmic lights. He was starting to be successful but it was too late, he was convinced that we were living in Roman Empire times and the past 1600 years was just a fake construct. He was ahead of his time in some many ways.

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