Monday, August 16, 2010

SF Masterworks #52: Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

I'd read a lot of Dick when I finally got to The Three Stigmata... It is obvious to everyone who looks at the SFM list, that there are way too many PKD books there and it's not possible that all of them are masterworks. Still, this particular title is counted among Dick's very best, so I had high hopes for it.

The story is set in the near future. Under UN authority, humanity has been forcefully made to colonize every habitable planet and moon in the Solar System, while Earth's temperatures rise to levels that could not sustain life. In the colonies, people live empty, hopeless lives with no ambition or purpose, barely scraping by. The only thing that keeps them sane is the drug Can-D which allows them for a little while to live in an imaginary perfect world defined by the miniature "layouts" developed by one of Earth's mightiest corporations. However, when genius industrialist Palmer Eldritch returns from an interstellar trip and brings with himself the alien drug Chew-Z which is a hundred times more powerful than Can-D, the whole game changes. But is Eldritch really what he appears to be? Who gave him this drug? And what exactly does Chew-Z do?

As with many of Philip Dick's stories, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is dependent on its ambiguity. After the first ingestion of Chew-Z by a character in the novel, the reader is left unsure of whether anything that follows is real or not. Problem is, apart from the titular three stigmata, there is not really any surreal element in the book, anything that makes you care whether what goes on is real or imagined. And by the end of it - around the time when reality-shifting turns into mind-swapping and time-traveling - you realize it actually doesn't matter.

Stylistically, the book is not among Dick's best as it suffers from his typical intention-declaring characters syndrome and a lot of really chunky prose, but it's not among his worse ones either. The author's favorite SF tropes - space colonization, precognition and campy human evolution - are all present, but for some reason Dick doesn't seem to care about any of them. They don't play a significant role in the story, and he makes no attempt to develop them in any meaningful way. His sole focus is the characters' questioning of their reality, but he somehow doesn't go the whole way there either. What the novel lacks, is focus. Something - a concept - around which to rotate the whole thing.

To be perfectly honest, after all the hype I've read for The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, I sort of expected more from it. Perhaps the fact that I recently read the hellishly mediocre Our Friends From Frolix 8 - which is basically a draft for the Stigmata... - didn't help either. Thing is, the book has always been praised for the way it blurs the lines between reality and illusion. And don't get me wrong, the mindfraking that goes on there is at times pretty impressive. Unfortunately, I can think of at least four other Dick books that do the same, and do it better. I guess its value lies in the fact that it is among the first of his works to actually delve deep enough into the topic.

Is The Three Stigmata... a masterwork? I would say not. It lacks the punch of The Man in the High Castle, the psychotic uncertainty of Martian Time-Slip, the aggressive schizophrenia of A Scanner Darkly, and the sharp purpose (not to mention the sheer number of ideas) of Ubik, although it makes claims to all of those. As a point of origin for Dick's later classics, it certainly has a significant place in his bibliography and I wouldn't argue that it's among his better works, and definitely worth reading. But to me the book has not aged well, especially in comparison to others of Dick's novels.


  1. I've started read this one and I'm half way through it. It hasn't really wowed me either.

  2. Hmm, been a while since I read it. Some of the ideas from this were in the short story The Days of Perky Pat if I recall correctly?

    But, yes, too much PKD in the Masterworks. Republish by all means; I'm a fan, I'll read 'em all anyway. But the Masterworks works better when I'm discovering something I may not have been able to read.