Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick
Doubleday, 1964 (my copy is from Vintage Books, 1992)
Size: Short (my copy has 230 pages)
Theme: Futuristic drug-induced experiences
Narrative: switches between first-person and third-person
Main character: Leo Bulero and Barney Mayersons
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

In a futuristic society, climate changes and insufficient space on Earth has led to the exploration and colonization of other planets. However, this is done through a draft process, due to the harsh life of colonists. To make life easier, it has become commonplace to use a drug called Can-D, which enables people to enter a sort of trance and immerse in a virtual world. Leo Bulero is the owner of a major reputable miniaturization company and, unknown to society in general, also the owner of the Can-D business. However, the unexpected return of Palmer Eldritch from his travel outside our solar system to meet an alien race, and the fact that he has brought with him a new type of drug, Chew-Z, which seems likely will be considered legal, creates considerable turmoil. As Leo and one of his main advisors, Barney Mayerson, experience Chew-Z, reality and the virtual Chew-Z world become harder and harder to tell apart. Has Palmer Eldritch become a God, or are they immersed in a fiction they cannot tell from reality?

This is a great reality-bending psychological thriller, where the warping of senses becomes pervasive and where deep complex issues are explored, such as the concepts of God, human soul, and consciousness. Also, although the story is quite short, it is very self-contained and has a perfectly reasonable thread from start to end. Also, despite being short, it superficially tackles many sci-fi themes, which have become pervasive in this genre over the last decades, such as time travel, precognition, induced reality, and mind-bending drugs, managing to mix them together in a very satisfactory way. The ending is puzzling enough to let you ponder what in reality happened, and you are left eager to read more of this story. As with most Philip K Dick’s stories, I feel there was much more depth the plot could have gone to, if the book was several times longer. Still, it’s an excellent book and definitely worth reading.

Spoilers (warning: the following text contains information that may hamper/ruin how much you enjoy the book):
It is revealed toward the end of the book that Palmer Eldritch has actually been taken over by an alien entity during his space trip, and that the drug Chew-Z is the mechanism through which this parasitic organism reproduces. The book leaves open the big question of whether that organism is going to be destroyed by Leo Bulero in a soon-to-be likely future, or if it has managed to take over the minds of several people and will take over their reality.

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