Review of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)


Philip K. Dick (writer).

Read in 2019.

Telepathy and precognition are generally recognized. Under the heavy thumb of the UN, people are being forced to emigrate from Earth, where global warming threatens human life. The rich pay to “evolve”, changing their own living bodies to deal with the heat. Misery drives the popularity of a drug that induces a collective dream around a specific “layout” of physical props, with varying cultic interpretations of the ontological implications.

In this soft-SF thriller, Dick manages to weave his perennial kinks into a functional narrative, half-way between a lame space opera and dingy cyberpunk sans computers.

The idea of commercial “precogs” is just one step removed from phoney fortune-tellers. It has ancient roots. For example, there’s a slave in Acts (ca. 80–110 CE) 16:16–19 whose economic value comes from a possessing spirit that predicts the future for her.

The eyeball kicks are pretty good (including the abbreviated English), the schlocky sexism is annoying but tolerable and there is little narrative weight to the ecological disaster. Dick instead focuses mainly on the drugs as commercial “product” and their relationship with a Nyarlathotep-like capitalist, the titular Palmer Eldritch, returning from “Prox” outside the solar system with a second, even more alarming drug. There’s actually a scene in this novel where the characters explicitly mention ontology, but this scene does nothing for credibility, and there’s not a lot of plot either. It’s not a thought experiment but it certainly builds a curious, reflective mood, like all good Dick.

References here: Ubik (1969), A Scanner Darkly (1977).

text fiction