It’s become fashionable in recent years to hail Philip K. Dick as the world’s greatest writer of science fiction. But why stop there? Why not hail him as the greatest writer of the 20th century full stop? It’s not like there’s been that much in the way of noteworthy competition. The implication, of course, is that Dick was a writer of “genre” fiction, inherently deemed inferior to “serious” or “literary” fiction. Never mind that Dick was never less than deadly serious about the philosophical implications of the alternate realities he explored through his work. Or that some of the most interesting writing to come out of the 20th century belongs precisely to the category of genre fiction, with writing of a more “literary” bent becoming increasingly inert, straitjacketed by stylistic pretensions and an obsession with the mundane. The fact is, no other writer in the 20th century can touch Philip K. Dick for the sheer scope of his imagination. The guy just came up with one stunning, mind bender of an idea after another.
I was first introduced to the work of Philip K. Dick as a teenager. The short stories came first, in a collection culled from my local library. The novels came later. For a kid just coming out of adolescence and beginning to realise that there’s a wider, more dangerous world out there to be experimented with, reading Dick was a genuinely consciousness expanding experience. Dick’s principle preoccupation was nothing less than the nature of reality itself. He asked questions like: if a hallucination becomes indiscernible from reality, then who’s to call it a hallucination at all? Or if humanity can be so successfully mimicked that it’s indistinguishable from the real thing, then what does it really mean to be human?
One particular short story, The Electric Ant, has always stood out in my mind as summing up everything that Dick was all about. A man wakes up from a flying-car accident and finds out that he is, in fact, an android. He realises that his perception of the outside world is created entirely from the information contained on a micro-punched tape running through his chest. So he begins to experiment on himself by punching new holes into the tape, each time adding new components to his external reality. He witnesses a flock of doves appearing before his eyes, for example. Eventually, his entire perception of the external world is irrevocably altered. Is it merely a hallucination, or is all reality a kind of hallucination? In Dick’s universe, nothing is quite as it appears. Reality is something that exists on multiple levels, eternally mutable in a shifting, queasily disturbing landscape of the mind.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of Dick’s very best novels, dealing not only with the nature of reality, but with another preoccupation of Dick’s later career: religion. More specifically, Gnosticism – the notion that while God (or something like him) exists – he is imperfect and corruptible. Not necessarily evil, but not benevolent in any conventional sense either. Rather a being implacable, mysterious, and alien to humanities’ narrow perspective of the world.
A great name for a novel that, by the way. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. One of the best things about Dick is the wonderfully hypnagogic titles he gave to his books. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Now Wait for Last Year. You can almost perceive the cracks opening up in space behind those titles, allowing alternate realities to seep through into our universe with startling consequences.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is set at some unspecified point in the 21st century. Man has colonised the solar system, but global warming is rendering life on Earth gradually uninhabitable. Nobody can walk around on the street without the aid of a personal air conditioner, and people go to Antarctica for their vacations. Life on the colonised planets is so arduous and soul crushing, however, that new colonists must be rounded up with the use of a draft system. The only entertainment the colonists have comes from the consumption of Can-D – a psychotropic substance that induces collective hallucinations. The consciousnesses of the users become disembodied and “translate” into Barbie-like “Perky Pat” dolls, allowing them to lead an imaginary, idealised version of the lives they left behind on Earth.
Savour that premise for a moment. Consider how utterly bizarre an idea that actually is. No other writer of science fiction came up with concepts remotely like this.
An Earth-based corporation, P.P. Layouts, markets the elaborate, miniaturised sets and accessories necessary for translation into Perky Pat’s world. “Precogs” – people with some level of psychic presentiment – are employed by the company to determine which accessories are likely to become fashionable in the future, and hence, generate the most profit. Secretly, P.P. Layouts also control the sale and distribution of Can-D, officially an illegal substance, but commonly available and treated with a degree of tolerance by the authorities.
P.P. Layout’s interplanetary monopoly becomes threatened, however, when the eponymous Palmer Eldritch, long believed lost or dead, returns mysteriously from a decade long mission outside the solar system. Eldritch has brought back a new and exponentially more powerful drug – Chew-Z – and intends to use it as the basis of his own rival corporation. Chew-Z has a hell of a marketing slogan: “God promises eternal life. We can deliver it.” But the problem is, Eldritch has undergone certain alterations during his journey into space, and nobody can be sure precisely who, or what, he has become… or how sinister his intentions might turn out to be.
It rapidly becomes apparent that Chew-Z possesses nothing less than the property of suspending time and space itself. A trip that only lasts minutes in the “real” external world, can take hours, years or a virtual eternity to play out in the alternate universe that the drug unleashes in the mind. Users can run through episodes in their lives – from the past or from the future – over and over again, seeking to “correct” those things they will regret… or come to regret, in the quest to realise an ideal version of their own lives.
But as Chew-Z’s users discover, Palmer Eldritch has the ability to perpetuate himself through the various alternate realities constructed by the ingestion of the drug, becoming a virtual God. In the world of Chew-Z’s users, the “three stigmata” of Palmer Eldritch – his robotic hand, steel teeth and artificial eyes - continually reappear, replicating themselves through time and space. The more the drug is consumed, the greater becomes Palmer Eldritch’s capacity to infiltrate reality, or even inhabit various individuals, dictating the fate of the universe and everything in it.
It’s a maddening, disorientating ride into the nature of faith and existence, at once disturbing and comic. Or if you prefer, it’s a book that can be read as a sly satire of the spiritual dead end of consumer culture. In such characteristically Dickian style, dozens of wildly inventive ideas are introduced over the course of the narrative, speculated over and then quickly abandoned again. The reader can never be certain of precisely what constitutes solid ground. For lesser science fiction minds, this kind of material would be dragged out over half a career’s worth of novels, but Dick burns through mind bending concept after concept, casually tossing them out and experimenting with them within the narrative framework, then discarding them as soon as another idea comes along.
It’s this furious, amphetamine fuelled rush to burn through all narrative cohesion and arrive at the end of a story that’s the source of much of the criticism from Dick’s detractors. The guy would basically consume shed loads of speed while churning out story after story, without really bothering to take much time to craft his work into something more “literary”. Dick’s prose is workmanlike rather than aesthetically pleasing, and rarely comes to life off the page. His characters are not drawn especially vividly. The device of placing ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances works well enough. But Dick’s characters are really just serving a functional role, moving the plot along so Dick can explore the kind of ideas he really finds interesting.
In one sense, it’s a necessary trade off. Dick was more of an ideas man than an artist. The headlong rush through mind boggling philosophical concepts, without pausing to shape them into a fully coherent vision, is entirely characteristic of his work. But Dick’s prose is not without its pleasures, nonetheless. His language is fast paced, pulpy and digestible, with plenty of dialogue and sly humour. Take the characters of Barney Mayerson and Roni Fulgate. They are both precogs and therefore capable of foreseeing that their mutual attraction will eventually lead them to become lovers. So they just decide to forget about the usual preliminaries and get on with it. You could rid the world of a hell of a lot of unresolved longing if such a scenario was actually possible!
The thing is though, it doesn’t really matter if Dick is unremarkable as a prose stylist. If you have an imagination as fertile as he did, you can get away with it. The sheer mind altering power of the frenetic head trip Dick sends his readers into while under the influence of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch transcends any kind of literary nicety. The dizzying, reality warping head space this novel leaves you in is enough to be convinced that you’ve ingested a dose of Chew-Z yourself. Like the protagonists of this book, you half expect the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch to begin appearing all around you in your own reality.