Philip K. Dick is renowned for his strangely compelling stories, but The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is certainly one of his strangest. Set in a future that takes elements of 1950s cocktail-party morals and Minority Report precognition, mingled with a global-warming meltdown expected a scant 50 years in the future; Palmer Eldritch then takes a nose-dive into the 1960s’ to find salvation and damnation in an alien mushroom.
Barney Mayerson is a fashion pre-cog, working for Leo Bulero, the head of “Perky Pat Layouts.” Perky Pat and her “boyfriend” Walt are dolls whose materialistic lifestyle is supported by fashionable miniatures of cars, stereo systems, furniture, clothing, and everything desirable to the teeming millions who live on Earth.
The problem is, there are too many people on Earth to allow everyone to have this abundance for real, so random people are “drafted” to become colonists on Mars. There, they use the illegal drug Can-D to become, temporarily, Perky Pat or her boyfriend. The quality of this experience (the only escape available to the colonists) is believed to be dependent on the up-to-date fashion of the miniature layouts they create for their Pat and Walt dolls.
Belief is an important factor in this equation—in fact, religions have grown up around the drug experiences of the colonists. Some believe that the Can-D “translation,” the apparent entry of the women into Pat, and the men into Walt, actually takes them to an Earth before the time when it was suicide to be outside in the unshaded noontime sun, or to a less-than-eternal Heaven. Some liken the taking of Can-D to the wine and wafer of communion; the men commune together in the persona of Walt, the women in Pat. A few cynics believe neither, but welcome the easing of restrictions. After all, it’s Pat’s body that joins with Walt’s, so it can hardly be adultery, right?
The acquisitive, free-love society that has ruined Earth is thus miniaturized on Mars. The other requisite element in this scheme, the drug Can-D, is also manufactured by P-P Layouts (quietly, as contraband), and sold at top dollar to the colonists. Colonial authorities look the other way, because without the drugs, colonies quickly descend into cabin fever, then flash over into murder and mayhem.
As the story begins, Palmer Eldritch, legendary explorer to Proxima Centauri, has returned to the Solar System, bringing with him a new drug, an alien fungus marketed as “Chew-Z.” Unlike Can-D, Chew-Z needs no layout. And its translation brings the user into a world that seems really eternal, Heavenly—complete with an audience with God. The only problem is, sooner or later God, and all the other characters everyone encounters in the Chew-Z universe, take on a distinct resemblance to Palmer Eldritch.
When Barney Mayerson is drafted to Mars, he plans to take the new drug along with a toxin supplied by P-P Layouts, then sue Eldritch to convince the authorities that this new drug is worse than Can-D. As a pre-cog, though, he knows that his boss, Leo, will be charged with killing Palmer Eldritch in the near future. And neither Barney nor Leo realize that, once you’ve taken Chew-Z, Palmer Eldritch resides in your mind.
The tone of the story is psychedelic, with confusing chronology and a distorted sense of wonder and awe. Elements that seem to be important to the tale as it begins are abandoned, without apology, when something newer comes along. Earth’s ecological disaster is implied, but never explored; the aliens of Proxima are discussed once, then dropped. Can-D religions are sketched in the barest terms sufficient to contrast them with the Chew-Z experience.
In the end, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch feels something like a drug trip; one is left with the sense of having had a revelation, but its details are lost in the haze.
This is one Dick novel that will never be made into a movie. I hope.