Dick, Philip K.: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Is this a book that will leave its mark on you?

I’ve never actually read much Philip K Dick, not least thanks to encounters with those occasional humourless SF fans who scoff at my more light hearted choices, insisting instead on a must-read list of obscure, out-of-print, doom-laded tomes where Philip K Dick often features prominently. My usual reaction is to reach for the ray-guns and rocket-ships and settle for watching Blade Runner or Total Recall next time either comes round on telly. This attitude is of course neither grown-up nor clever, so this latest in the Gollancz SF Masterworks offers me the chance to see if Philip K Dick is all he’s cracked up to be.

We start with Barney Myerson, a precognitive struggling to convince his robot psychiatrist that he’s suffering the required Freuds of stress to avoid being sent to colonize Mars. While Earth is slowly baking under appalling global warming, a colonist’s life is still something to avoid. Stuck in basic accommodation with such appealing names as Chicken Pox Prospects and terraforming largely by hand, their only escape is addiction to a range of what are ostensibly toys; the Perky Pat layouts. These are effectively dolls’ house layouts, complete with every current fad and fashion on Earth available as miniaturised accessories. Barney works in fashion precognition for P.P. Layouts; his job to make sure that they are always ahead of the trends. Lately he’s increasingly concerned that his assistant might have seen something he’s missed, notably herself in his job. One of the first things that strikes me about this book is the pleasing thread of wry humour running through it.

Everyone in is focused on their immediate concerns, up to and including Leo Bulero, head of P.P.Layouts. His worries are rather more complex than most. Not only does P.P.Layouts supply the intricate miniature world of Perky Pat and her clean cut boy friend Walt, they also supply the drug Can-D which enables the colonists to enter into that world of illusion, the women in a shared hallucination that they are Pat, the men as Walt. The colonists would much rather indulge in this habit than till their fields and naturally, there’s soon discussion over whether sex in the guise of Pat and Walt counts as adultery, given the colonists physical bodies are comatose at the time. The pernicious effect of the drug on colonist society doesn’t bother Leo Bulero. His main concern is avoiding the UN drug police. Then everything is thrown into confusion by the return of Palmer Eldritch, ostensibly from an intergalactic voyage and soon after, by the appearance of Chew-Z, a drug which seems to threaten the circumscribed make-believe world of Perky Pat by offering far wilder delights. As Leo pursues Palmer Eldritch, it soon becomes clear that Can-D may well have been the lesser of two evils. Where are the limits of the Chew-Z illusions? The only way you can tell if you’re still in one turns out to be the sight of the three stigmata of the cyborg Palmer Eldritch; artificial arm, eccentric teeth and mechanical, slitted eyes.

That’s as much as I’m going to summarise of the plot because as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly more complex and chaotic, not impossible to follow but certainly defying easy precis. It’s an intriguing read, as we see precogs trying to get a jump on their rivals by looking ahead to future newsfeeds. And then finding they’ve been manipulated by those self same rivals planting stories. As everyone acts out of their own self interest, they find their ambitions thwarted by unintended consequences of their own actions, the penalty they pay for going for the quick fix, rather than the hard work option. On the other hand, we see how an individual unwilling to face the future can become trapped by their past. Hindsight versus foresight is a recurring theme.

In some ways the book is worryingly prescient, with its vision of runaway global warming and the slavishly dedicated followers of fashion. In other ways it’s curiously dated, particularly with the central concept of miniature worlds shared thanks to hallucinatory drugs. Nowadays, these characters would be plugging into Virtual Reality. Maybe but I’m not sure that would have so much impact; the very oddity of Perky Pat and her 60’s world certainly grabs the attention. Besides, the insidious threat of drugs shaping our very perception of reality is in some ways more up to date and more worrying than the Nivenesque fate of plugging ourselves into a droud. Once you’ve taken Chew-Z, there’s no off-switch, no way to bolt the doors of perception.

These ideas of perception, of illusion and reality and how both can be manipulated and misinterpreted will certainly be familiar to anyone who’s seen films based on Philip K Dick’s work. That’s fine as a starting point but there’s a lot more to his work than that. The written word allows far more free-wheeling visions than film ever could with digressions into everything from evolution to religion. Without the need for a neatly feel-good ending, the book can conclude on an infinitely more thought provoking ambiguity. The earnest geeks of fandom notwithstanding, I shall be interested to read more of Philip K Dick’s work.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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