Philip K. Dick is one of the founders of modern science fiction. I see him as a writer who straddled the line between the old guard – Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein – and the new school. He, along with writers like Harlan Ellison, ushered in a deeper and more surreal aspect to the genre.
If you aren’t familiar with his work, Dick focused a lot of attention on the human psyche, the question of what’s real and what’s illusion, as well as the impact of drugs and religion on how we interpret the world.
I’ve read a few of his other works and loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. But the thing is, while he was helping to change the landscape of science fiction, he still wrote like his predecessors. What I mean is, he focused more on the ideas than he did on the narrative.
Not that it’s a bad thing. Ideas, good ones, can carry the story. With The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the ideas are so fascinating that I could overlook the storytelling and somewhat dated portrayals of women.
The basic plot is that in the future, Earth is overheating and the world governing body is drafting ‘volunteers’ to colonize other plants and moons in the solar system. Because the environments are so hostile, most of the colonists are addicted to a drug that lets them inhabit the bodies of some fictional characters as if they were back home. The addicts have turned their experiences into a religion.
Enter Palmer Eldritch, how has returned from a ten year journey to Proxima with a new drug that will replace the old one. This sparks a war with the manufacturer of the current drug. It also starts a debate on whether or not Eldritch is still himself or someone, or something, different.
Mixed into all this is an examination of reality – what is real and how do we know for sure? Religion – how do we determine what to worship and is it really good for us? And the human condition – what are we capable of and how far will we go to achieve our goals?
As I noted above, the narrative is dated and far from poetic, but the ideas themselves are worth the read. Dick was obsessed with reality, identity, and the workings of the mind. If you’ve read any of his other fiction you’ll know what I mean. It’s apparent in just about everything he’s written.
Also, the story was nominated for a Nebula award in 1965 for Best Novel.
I feel this novel is on par with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, although not quite as well written. If you enjoy classic science fiction and stories that focus on ideas, then you should pick up a copy of this book. It’ll have you thinking long after the last page.