After Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti, I decided to write about another literary gem – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In my opinion, Philip K. Dick is one of the most overlooked authors, when it comes to the weird fiction. While usually associated with science fiction, many of his works can very often be classified as horror masterpieces. One of them, undoubtedly, is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. What makes this novel so unique? Let’s find out.
The action of the novel takes place in the future. The world is struggling with such problems as rapidly growing greenhouse effect, shifting of glaciers which make living on Earth almosts unbearable or eugenic program accelerating the evolution of the wealthiest citizens. Moreover, anyone can be forced to move to Mars or another planet to live in harsh conditions, while terraforming it. The only entertainment available for the colonists is a drug called Can-D. Combined with Perky Pat (Ken and Barbie-like dolls), it allows them to enter a trance and feel as if they were back on Earth. Those are conditions in which we meet the main characters of the novel – Leo Bulero, the head of corporation distributing the aforementioned hallucinogenic substance and Barney Mayerson, his employee.
The order of things gets disturbed when a wealthy entrepreneur, Palmer Eldritch, after many years spent in Proxima galaxy, returns to the solar system. He brings a new, strange drug, designed to provide sensations far more intense than Can-D. What is the advantage of Chew-Z? To what extent did the journey change Palmer Eldritch? Is he still human?
God promises eternal life. We deliver it.
While Can-D allows you to temporarily share experiences with other people, after taking the substance brought by Eldritch, you find yourself in a world where, among other things, you can try to change your past or affect the future. Can you though? Like in many other Philip K. Dick’s stories, reality is always being questioned. We never exactly know if the events shown in the novel are actually happening or are they just narcotic visions. Eldritch fulfills, at least to some extent, the divine promise, while bereaving it of the element of holiness. He gives Chew-Z users eternal life, but also condemns them to eternal loneliness. At some moment, one of the characters asks – Isn’t a miserable reality better than the most interesting illusion? It’s one of the main themes discussed in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
In search of God
I looked up at the sky and saw a face. I didn’t really see it, but the face was there, and it was not a human face; it was a vast visage of perfect evil… it was immense; it filled a quarter of the sky. It had slots for eyes – it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God
That’s how Philip K. Dick described the vision that inspired him to write The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Therefore it’s not surprising, that motifs such as search of god or differences between narcotic trance and the revelations experienced by the faithful appear throughout the novel. While reading this book, I recommend you to take a closer look at the characters’ views on religion and how they evolve.
An interesting example of it is the story of deeply religious Anne Hawthorne and atheist Barney Mayerson. The woman volunteers to participate in the colonization of Mars in order to discourage other members of the mission from taking drugs and eventually convert them. Unfortunately for here, after reaching the travel destination, it turns out that despite her best intentions, she is not able to cope with the hopelessness and alienation associated with life on the red planet. She quickly loses faith and begins to look for another way to escape from reality. On the other hand we have Mayers, who begins to notice his previous sins and to some extent abandons his earlier views. He starts to believe, that there must be something else somewhere, some divine power, and it’s not necessarily the nightmarish Palmer Eldritch. I think that it’s one of the most interesting themes in the novel.
Weird in Three Stigmas of Palmer Eldritch
The first contact with an alien civilization is one of the most popular subjects discussed in science fiction novels. In both books and movies, you may come across several different approaches to this topic. Usually aliens are, more or less, but humanoid creatures, with need similar to ours (e.g., Three-Body Problem by Cixing Liu) or just strange and often dangerous animals (e.g., Xenomorph in Alien series). What makes us think, however, that entities from a completely different part of the universe will be able to communicate with us? What happens if it turns out that we are so different, that any communication or even noticing each other is impossible?
Such a disturbing, but in my opinion probable, idea was used in, for instance, Blindsight by Peter Watts and Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. The beings portrayed in those novels are something completely different, not fitting the world we know. Philip K. Dick followed a similar path in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The first contact presented in his novel basically makes our reality and beliefs collapse, distorts them, and then turn them into some kind of narcotic nightmare. Sounds like a real treat for weird fiction fans, right? The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. In my opinion, it should rightfully be mentioned in conversations discussing masterpieces of this genre.
Something which stands with empty, open hands is not God. It’s a creature fashioned by something higher than itself, as we were; God wasn’t fashioned and He isn’t puzzled.
What if we found out that God is a Palmer Eldritch-like entity? Would we be able to accept living in such a reality? Or maybe we would try to get rid out of him and try to take his place? The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch provoke the reader to ask himself such questions.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is without a doubt one of the best weird sci-fi novels ever written. By sending us into a world harrassed by Palmer Eldritch’s disturbing visions, Philip K. Dick makes us question the reality as we know it and ask ourselves a lot of questions concerning faith, God and possible first contact with other civilization. If you are looking for a good, ambitious novel – this one shouldn’t disappoint you.
Have you read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch? What are your thoughts? Which Philip K. Dick’s novel is your favorite? Please let me know in the comments.