The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Philip K. Dick, 1965)

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The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick (1965).

Score: The most alien book I’ve read in a long time.

Before we start, I’d like to shout out to my friend Fran, who recommended this book to me and is a fan of K. Dick’s works. Vaya libros más raros que recomiendas.

In The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch the Earth is so overheated that people have to be constantly indoors and a lot of the population are drafted to become forceful colonists of the other planets and moons of the Solar System. Work in the colonies is so menial and life is so miserable that colonists pass their time chewing a hallucinogenic drug called Can-D and experiencing the life of a Barbie-like doll, Perky Pat, and her boyfriend. For the “translation” to actually happen, they need the dolls and their layouts, filled with minned objects; the company that manufactures these layouts is also the company that surreptitiously distributes the illegal drug.

But now the system-famous industrial Palmer Eldritch is back from a trip to Prox System, and he’s bringing with him a new drug, Chew-Z, which he claims is much better than Can-D. Leo Bulero, CEO of Perky Pat Layouts, is willing to do anything to stop the competition.

Mingled with all this there are also psychics, used for the everyday task of predicting what will be trendy and what won’t (that’s the level of decadence), evolution therapy that makes people sport hydrocephalic-like crania, and some insane hallucination passages, everything coated with a thick layer of delicious, delicious zeerust. It’s quite enjoyable as a novel, though.

Before this I’d only read two other books by K. Dick before, Do androids dream of electric sheep? and The man in the high castle. I was guessing those were in the group of the “sane” books he wrote, and The three stigmata was in the pile of the ones that aren’t. Now I see that’s not true, they’re all insane to some degree because the poor guy had a psychiatric condition and you can either follow him into alternative realities or hop off the train. I feel it’s the closest you can get to reading Vonnegut without reading Vonnegut, with the difference that Vonnegut looks chaotic but his books are carefully thought-out and rely heavily and deliberately on literary devices, while K. Dick reads like a desperate cry and attempt to make something out of reality, not necessarily sense. Vonnegut is sardonic. K. Dick is completely pessimistic and hopeless.

In fact reading this along with getting some context helped me better understand The man in the high castle, which disappointed me because I was wrongly reading it as a simple alternate history novel. In order to understand and enjoy K. Dick’s work you have to know that the single most important theme in his books is the duality between the real and the unreal, in its multiple forms. In Do androids dream of electric sheep? it’s the duality between the real, natural animals and people and the electric ones, better suited to live in a hostile environment we have created for ourselves. In The man in the high castle it’s the duality between a horrible historic reality and the empowering hope that the world might be a better place… if history had played out differently. InThe three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch it’s the duality between a reality where we’re miserable, mediocre, and have no goals in life, and a collective hallucination where we’re young, rich, careless and hedonistic. Well, at least part of it. Like with the other two, this is just one aspect of what K. Dick is trying to say.

So the big question is: do I prefer a life where I’m happy and I have everything I could ever want, but is a lie, or do I want to be miserable in a true world? It’s a legit question, and all of us have asked it at one time or another, but for K. Dick it has a tragic tint, since suffering from schizophrenia meant that a lot of the time he could not choose to live in a real or unreal world and therefore had constant doubts about the reality of what he was experiencing. Just like his characters.

I find it really curious that because K. Dick is an immensely famous and influential sci-fi author he’s usually and widely recommended, but I feel it’s a terrible idea to recommend his work to someone who’s not familiar with the genre because he’s quite difficult to read (okay, not Moby Dickdifficult, but it’s not Harry Potter either), he’s got the most ludicrous ideas for plots and he can be downright abstruse. It is the case with this book. It’s ambiguous and vague at explaining what really is going on and will leave a lot of things to your interpretation. But if you think hard enough you will find an interpretation.

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