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on June 18, 2004
THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH is certainly one of Dick's most important books. It casts a stronger, clearer and more unsettling light on a certain aspect of Dick's vision than perhaps any other of his books. I am referring to Dick's deep interest in the peculiarly post-modern experiential blend of banality and terror. This is one of the most important and least appreciated or correctly understood aspects of Dick's artistic vision and accomplishment. If you take the time to examine it, you will see that banality and terror form the poles between which the content of THE THREE STIGMATA moves and it is important to understand that this banality and terror are inseparable from the high-tech nature of this imagined future world. For Dick, the predominant effect of pervasive technological advancement has been that it intensely magnifies the banality of ordinary consciousness which, confronted then with its excruciatingly boring self, demands to be entertained, amused, ( 'Perky Pat' is only a futuristic extension of ordinary post-modern society) to the point of a sort of addiction and so the chief function of technology becomes to create a world that is a diversion from reality and then to protect that world from any possible threat. Let us note before going any further that for Dick ordinary consciousness is a sort of artificial consciousness in the sense that its main thrust is not toward a connection with the challenging mystery of reality but toward diversionary false 'realities' and this is ultimately why Dick so often blurs the line between ordinary humans and various forms of androids. They are both forms of repeatable, artificial life. The sort of open, genuine exploring of reality that was so important to Dick is alien and even taboo to ordinary consciousness. Dick saw this exploring as absolutely necessary for maintaining sanity, that is, being in touch with reality. This is a sort of law of life and the consequence of violating it is that doing so eventually leads to the manifestation of dominating monsters and terror. In a very real sense, Palmer Eldritch is nothing more than a high-tech fascist monster and the terror that he represents has its roots in the very banality of the lives of most of the people he comes to dominate. If my view of this book seems to neglect its sci-fi nature, please remember that for Dick technological advancement, however expansive, does not in itself entail any advancement in awareness or understanding in human beings, it rather only magnifies what they already are and Dick's entire body of sci-fi work is a radical rebellion against that common sci-fi fantasy. THE THREE STIGMATA is a truly visionary book of a very frightening nature.
Finally, I would like to comment on the fact that one often hears and reads statements on Dick's work claiming that it is unfortunate that he was not more conscientious about the quality of his writing, the implication presumably being that if he had been he might have produced some real literary masterpieces instead of the flawed but interesting works he did create. I believe this attitude reveals a serious lack of understanding of what it is that makes Dick's work so important, far more important than that of the majority of his contemporaries who have a more 'polished' style. It is well known that Dick wrote very rapidly, sometimes entire works gushed out of him in a very short time and it is often stated that he should have taken the time to re-write and produce a more'literary' work. I believe that Dick's gut feeling was totally against this and I also believe that his feeling was absolutely correct. Dick knew that he had a rare and deep connection with and feel for certain crucial characteristics of post-modern civilization and their implications for the future. One of these characteristics was its chronic, unique and deadly type of banality and trashiness which is so rawly present in his work. He saw it for the deeply rooted disease that it is, so deeply rooted that the common reaction to it is to try to make a virtue of it rather than face the seemingly impossible operation of trying to dig it out. He had the same deep feel for the possible fantastic terrors of the future and he sincerely struggled all his adult life to find a reality that could genuinely liberate him from, take him beyond these things. Dick's approach to writing was his way of keeping immediately in touch with his own deepest sense of things and for him to attempt to be more 'artistic' in any conventional sense of that term would only have weakened his work by turning it back toward the past and would not have improved it. Dick's work is inevitably imperfect, but it is a bold and beautiful step forward that none of his contemporaries can match.
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on May 6, 2001
One of PKD's acknowledged classics, and the one where all his more bizarre obsessions - drugs, paranoia, the fluid nature of reality - unite. He wouldn't really bring it all home as powerfully again until _A Scanner Darkly_.
As with most classics, we might find it hard to judge this novel on its own merits. It's tempting to give it high marks just because everyone agrees that it's a classic. Well, it certainly deserves five stars, but why?
For one thing, in _Three Stigmata_ PKD finally mastered the art of story combinations. I've complained in past reviews that some of his previous novels contained so many ideas you couldn't follow them too well - in this novel he got it right. The plot doesn't simply jump, for instance, from a corporate office on Earth to a hovel on Mars; the corporate office produces something that the inhabitants of that hovel actually consume, and eventually one of the corporate employees may have to go there. For another example, that corporate employee doesn't merely have problems, his problems are connected - it's because he might have to go to Mars that he can't handle the pain of his divorce. And so on. The incidents in _Three Stigmata_ form webs of force that drive the characters from place to place, which makes the novel much more involving. And then it turns out that almost all those webs of force are in the control of a boogeyman.
Don't underestimate the power of a boogeyman tale, especially a tale for adults where the boogeyman has a mechanical hand, artificial eyes and steel teeth. His name is Palmer Eldritch, and at first he's simply a new competitor that the protagonist has to deal with; he's pushing a new kind of drug that's much more effective than the one our hero has been selling.
Now, here's where things really start to get interesting. Palmer Eldritch's mere presence forces our hero to confront the fact that he's a pusher. What does he do about this new competition? He calls upon his connections in government to get his competitor's product suppressed, that's what. When that doesn't work, he hunts down his competitor with the idea in mind of killing him. This is a hero?
Well, yeah. Turns out that Palmer Eldritch isn't merely a businessman looking for a big score - he's after something much more insidious. To save the world, our "hero" the pusher has to turn into a genuine hero after all. What's more, to do that, he has to change his entire approach to life. He's been in the business of selling an illusion, and he has to find a way to sell reality to a bunch of people who don't want it, himself included.
All of this is brilliant enough - a character who starts out as the mirror image of the villain and has to turn himself around for the sake of humanity. PKD goes one step further. There's another character here who's looking to rebuild his self-esteem after committing a crime, and he too has a choice; will he use his influence to escape the consequences of his actions, but turn himself into the kind of man his ex-wife despises? Or will he give up all his privileges and accept exile to Mars, never see his ex-wife again but still be worthy of her? He has to decide whether his comfort, or really his life, is worth his ability to look at himself. When was the last time you read an SF story that even bothered to ask that question?
Like I said, _Three Stigmata_ deals with PKD's well-known propensity for drugs, paranoia and illusory reality, but like a lot of his work it's really a book about redemption, those who struggle for it and those who can't have it. It's his stylistic genius that makes the book a classic, but it's his concern with redemption that makes the book worthwhile.
Benshlomo says, Some will find redemption and some will not, but we must respect all who seek it.
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on July 1, 2004
God, Satan, Maya, the Id, Drugs, Evolution, Communism, Religion, Postmodernism, the Future, Reality, Unreality...all of the above, none of the above? What does Eldritch and his precious Chew-Z represent to you?
Dick's masterpiece about a creeping threat(or is it the salvation of man?) that is borderline supernatural feeds off the audience's paranoia of the "Other". This is a common theme in PKD's work, and this may be his best on this topic. We have no control over it, it's coming, to eat us, to savor us, to incorporate us into his mind. I've always felt that PKD was in ways an heir to horror-master H.P. Lovecraft, another writer who wrote about the inevitability of man's annihilation at the hands of the supernatural.
I'm tempted to drop the rating a half star, because this book does tend to get repetitive towards the end, and possibly confusing if you're not paying attention, but that seems to always be PKD's point--the swarming of Palmer Eldritch in the characters' minds. It works well as an idea, but, in execution, you kind of want the story to move along. PKD's strength wasn't in his plotting or characterization (although this book has some of his better character arcs), but in his mind-blowing creativity. Even his weakest books are a joy just because you run into concepts and ideas that you probably never could have thought of yourself. Finding out what little mundane development PKD envisions for the future is as much as a page turner as the plot itself. Evolution treatment, suitcase psychiatrists? The normality of the weird, a PKD trademark.
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on February 12, 2003
This book was great. It has everything that I have come to expect from PKD, and even improved on some of his flaws. Historically, he has been berated by reviewers for lacking plot or characterization. Without losing the conceptual angle that is so brilliant in all of his work, this one focused more on story. The reader sees more of the main characters, as well. We learn all of their motivations and feelings.
The author's characteristic wry humour is showcased in this book, too. For instance, he comments on American consumerism when he tells of the favourite past time of the Mars colonists who take the drug Can-D to experience a day in the life of a Barbie and Ken doll set. And he does it in a way that somehow makes sense in the story.
Of course, stealing the spotlight is the real main character of the story, which is reality itself. You never know if what you are reading is really happening. The long-term effects of the drugs are unknown to the main characters, so when they experience getting lost in time or losing their identity, the reader gets similarly lost. As soon as you figure it out, you find that you are wrong.
Some drugs are not so safe- even if used as directed.
So, buy this book. Your brain will love you for it.
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on June 25, 2002
This is the question, it appears that Philip K. Dick is trying to share with his readers, as he switches around the history of Christianity with a science fiction story. The lines between reality and hallucinations are blurred, and God is made out to be a somewhat evil man trying for world domination. PKD touches on all the routines we perform for our religion and transforms them into a 230 page book about a God or Devil that can take over the world at any time.

Now, I'm not the most religious person in the world, and after reading the book I had to sit down and think about the last 20 pages of the book and what they meant as I usually do about PKD books (most of his books get very strange or fall apart in the last few pages), and I frantically began searching the web for a meaning of this book, when it hit me. The true meaning of the book. I am not going to give away anything, but I'm going to tell you that this book is not what it seems, the surface may confuse you (really confuse you), but read the ending over again, and it will come to you. This is no doubt one of the best books I have ever read, and I recommend it to anybody who enjoys the writing of Philip K. Dick.
Also recommended: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Maze of Death, A Scanner Darkly, American Psycho.
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on March 16, 2004
This may well be Philip K. Dick's most brain-frying book, and I mean that as a complement. I put it down feeling overstuffed, as if the book were a rich cheese I'd had too much of. There is so much going on here, thematically, conceptually, and literally, that it's hard to keep track.
The plot is... too much to describe, so I'll direct you to what Amazon has already provided. It's perhaps best not to know too much about what's going on beforehand anyway.
Ultimately this is a story that works on many levels. Alongside questions about the divine, about the nature of reality, about the nature of happiness, there are some wonderfully simple human elements, such as Barney Mayerson's attempt to cope with failure, and his gradual redefinition of himself at the colony. This kind of character transformation- breaking down, then building up- seems central to much of Dick's work, and it is handled with a breathtaking emotional subtlety.
I am not sure whether I consider this the best of Dick's work, but it certainly demonstrates why he was perhaps science fiction's most literary author- one whose efforts stand as a validation of the genre's worth. Here is a sci-fi novel that is also a brilliant piece of postmodernist literature, a study of faith and the human psyche that deals with the increasing (or simply continued) complexity and uncertainty of the world around us, and the need to find something to hold on to, be it illusion or reality.
More thoughts will probably come with time. Right now I don't think the digestion process has finished.
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on January 28, 2003
This is my favorite book by Dick; I couldn't put it down. Besides having more of a plot than many others of his books, this work dives deep into mind-blowing issues like causality and the spatial dimension of time. The premise is interesting enough to hook you in, but once Palmer starts really messing with people, your head will spin.
For anyone who thinks that a time travel story gives you lots to think about, this book will take those issues and rip them apart, sewing them back together inside your head without ever resorting to overt time travel. It's all hidden within the doors of perception, and it questions how perception is related to consciousness.
What makes this book great is that it contains a great villain: Palmer Eldritch. Eldritch is a powerful, motivated, morally ambiguous character that is only the "villain" because of his relation to the other characters (and the fact that he seems to be trying to take over humanity). In fact, everyone's a villain in this book, except for the poor saps who can't control their own fate.
It's also a major treatise on mind control through media and drugs. You will see how society today is being programmed by the corporate media, and how drugs (everything from alcohol and mj to speed and acid) are dulling probably half of America into a state of placid, easily controlled, and manipulated baffoons.
Overall, entertaining, thought provoking, and out of this world. Completely original, Dick was a pioneer.
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on April 28, 2004
One of Dick's masterpieces, first published in 1965. The setting is a future Earth where the environment has heated up intolerably. Because of overpopulation, people are "drafted" to emigrate the even more miserable environments of Mars and other planets. The colonists, to escape the dreary reality of their hovels, take a hallucinogenic drug, Can-D. Like the psychedelic voyagers of the 1960s, they also have something like theological debates about the reality of the Can-D experience. A kind of negative messiah named Palmer Eldritch introduces a new drug called Chew-Z and at first it seems an improvement, producing not a fantasy state but a "genuine new universe." But those who step into it find themselves subject to Eldritch as the evil god of a hallucinated world. The hero Barney Mayerson, after taking the drug, is turned into a phantom in a future world that regards him as only semi-real, and then finds himself turning into Eldritch himself. Thus Chew-Z, promising the fulfillment of all desires, only produces a nightmare from which one perhaps never awakens. But drugs are in a sense a red herring in this novel. Can-D and Chew-Z are, rather, pretexts for revealing the fragility of the fabric of reality woven by our perceptions and conditioning.
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on December 25, 2002
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch combines what I like most and least about the works of Philip K. Dick.
Dick shows why he is among the best sci-fi writers ever. He makes us question what is real about the human experience. In the three stigmata, this is done by exploring the mind via the use of recreational drugs named Can-D and Chew-Z. As I understand the goal, it is to get at the core of how human experience is a mental phenomenon.
Beyond the brain as experience creating maching, the three stigmata is packed with interesting ideas including pre-cogs (as in the movie "minority report").
Two aspects of the book limited my enjoyment. The first is the slippery divide between reality and fantasy. I'd estimate that 50% of the book is spent in action sequences of unknown reality -- is it actually happening or is it in the mind? -- you don't know. I understand that this relates to the main point of the book, but I tired of the device.
The second quirk that limited my enjoyment relates to Dick's view of the sources of human happiness. In the three stigmata, human colonists on Mars and elsewhere are unhappy because they live in objectively difficult circumstances.
The idea that hard times makes for unhappy humans may seem logical, but all the data contradict this notion. In fact, humans appear to be extremely good at adjusting to any world in which we live. A seminal study of happiness found that people who win a lottery end up being about as happy as those who become crippled in car accidents. See the greed chapter in Mean Genes for a longer description.
All in all, the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is an excellent book, well worth the read.
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on December 9, 2001
Sporting one of the neatest titles in all of literature, SF or otherwise, this novel is considered one of Dick's handful of absolute masterpieces, written during his peak in the sixties. People who saw Blade Runner, went and read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and liked it enough to want to explore Dick further and came here (remove the seeing Blade Runner part and that's me) may find this book a decidely odd experience. Not outwardly psychedelic in nature but certainly dealing with altered states of conscious and the nature of reality versus our perception of it . . . if you find yourself reading it and think you're missing something, trust me you aren't alone. Probably no one other than Dick knew exactly everything that is going on in here but for the rest of us it's an interesting dilemma trying to discern his exact meaning, or our best interpretation. In the future, the earth is unbearably warm, people are being drafted to be sent to dreary colonies and Can-D is the drug of the moment, a substance which allows people to "translate" into layouts based on a doll called Perky Pat and basically experience a life that isn't theirs. Then Palmer Eldrich returns from outside the solar system with his new drug Chew-D which he claims will deliver immortality and show the nature of God . . . and then things get funny. Dick's vision of a future world is absolutely fascinating and for us low brow folks who don't get all the wacky symbolism, makes the book worth it simply for his depiction of an overheated earth, the boring spiritual desolation of the Mars colonies, the pre-cogs who determine the latest fashions, it all feels bleak and despairing but there's a sense of humor lurking in the wings and a vague feeling that something larger is going on. It starts to lose coherency toward the end as the reader begins to question reality, especially what is the nature of Palmer Eldrich (great name, by the way) and eventually you find your head starting to hurt just a bit. And it's not that bad a feeling, as it turns out. PKD books are more experienced than described and nothing here is going to really be able to convey the texture of his novels, you just have to read it for yourself. It's not perfect but it's both thought provoking and entertaining on vastly different levels and so in that sense comes highly recommended.
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