2015 is the 50th anniversary of many critical events – as we are often reminded. However, as a fan of mind-bending science fiction, I would also like to point out that 1965 was the year Philip K Dick’s novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was published. Along with other Dick classics like Ubik & Time Out of Joint, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch questions the very nature of reality itself with the story revolving around the use & experience of simulated reality by its key characters.
The novel takes place some time in the 21st century. The Earth is over-populated and global warming is at hazardous levels and has thus established several colonies on virtually every habitable planet. Conditions are harsh on these colonies and thus reluctant colonists endure the hardship by escaping into a simulated reality brought about by the Can-D drug, which provides a shared virtual experience with props called ‘layouts’.
Pre-cog Barney Mayerson works for (or P.P.) Layouts, Inc., which has held a monopoly on this product, as well as on the illegal trade in Can-D which makes the shared hallucinations possible. Mayerson’s boss, Leo Bulero, hears rumours that a new drug Chew-Z has appeared on the market. This competing drug does not require ‘layouts’ and is more addictive than Can-D, effectively destroy P.P. Layouts. Palmer Eldritch is the man behind Chew-Z, his ship had crashed on Pluto and his whereabouts were unknown, after being rescued. In their efforts to thwart Eldritch, both Mayerson and Bulero would ultimately experience the effects of Chew-Z, and would separately begin to question their own personal realities, with the consideration that Eldritch may be in god-like control. True to form, the ending of the novel is ambiguous, as Dick considered life to be.
Apart from Dick’s remarkable prescience concerning shared virtual experience (hello, social media and online gaming!), there were more serious themes that Dick was interested to explore. Chief amongst which, involved religious issues like the nature of God. The use of the term ‘stigmata’ to describe Eldritch’s mechanical arm, slotted eyes and metallic teeth, references Roman Catholicism with Eldritch’s ability to create & control a reality via Chew-Z raises the possibility of Eldritch’s omnipotence. Dick would go on subsequently to examine religious themes further in the VALIS trilogy.
Personally, I see the relevance of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as pertaining to the manner in which reality is perceived by human beings, using a belief system (like religion or politics) as the means of entry into this false reality (like Chew-Z). In such a state, the creator of the belief system (like Palmer Eldritch) is able to control and manipulate all those who lived within that perceived reality. The horror of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is that even when the characters were aware of their plight, they are unable to escape with the addictive quality of Chew-Z drawing them back into the hellish virtual prison.
A brilliant pioneering mind-fuck of the first order, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is essential reading for anyone keen to throw off the delusions of modern living.