Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is an exhilarating mash of religion, hallucinatory drugs, and tried and true science fiction concepts. In the 21st century, planet Earth is so overheated it is dangerous to go outside for any period of time without protection. The United Nations is a totalitarian if somewhat benign world government, conscripting individuals from the heaving planet and forcibly resettling them on other orbiting bodies in the solar system. (As a side note, I think it's interesting that even as late as the '60s Venus was still considered potentially habitable.) The conditions on those colonies are dreary and harsh. UN authorities mostly look the other way on a rampant abuse of drugs there to cope. The most popular drug among colonists is CAN-D, which appears to enable a consciousness to inhabit miniature landscapes kept like dollhouses or model railroad dioramas, which users build and collect details for like a hobby, nostalgic comfort regions where they may dwell as long as the drug lasts, a few hours at a time. Meanwhile, our hero Palmer Eldritch has returned from a mission beyond the solar system with a mysterious new drug, CHEW-Z ("Be choosy, chew CHEW-Z" is the advertising tagline planned for its marketing launch). Its effects are similar to CAN-D, but much more powerful, and sinister. The range of issues Dick attempts is ambitious: religion, politics, and drugs, to name the most obvious. He is best at narrating the drug experiences, keeping us on track through bizarre, ever-unfolding terrains of experience. It always feels like at least a solid head trip mind fuck, and surprisingly often like a hallucinogenic drug experience. These episodes are weird, funny, scary, often quite lucid, and convincing. Dick constantly threatens to go obvious with the religious themes but then tends to hold back at the last minute, which at once affirms the dignity, power, and danger of religion. And the dystopian science / political vision of humanity's impulse at large to control and overrun is what grounds it all in given reality. His sure hand at managing these elements makes the case, as they say, for Dick as unimaginably far ahead of his times—consider the global warming detail alone. In that regard, and also on the drugs and corporatism, he's still well ahead of even our own times, more than 50 years later. Recommended.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Your description of Dick's "narration" of the drug experience is as good as anything I've read on the topic. I've never been able to explain it, myself ... only that when I read those scenes, it always takes me a few seconds to re-adjust myself to the world when I put the book down.