The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is among the best of Philip K. Dick's early metaphysical satires. It's a story in which Dick furnishes his funhouse with many of the ideas he would continue to examine with even greater humor and depth in later novels like A Scanner Darkly (drugs as a tool of both escape and control), Ubik (commerce, advertising, and consumerism), and VALIS (the ineffability of the divine). As ever, reality isn't all that real, and the more control people seek to exert over it, the farther away from it they slip. Always careful to temper its mournfulness with abundant wit, Three Stigmata is a weird and wonderful dream that only Phil Dick could have made real.
It's the story of a man who voyages to the stars and comes back a god, only to discover it's just about the loneliest existence imaginable. In this future, the Earth has heated to the point that no one can survive outside their assigned apartment buildings within densely packed urban centers. Citizens are randomly drafted for emigration to colonies elsewhere in the solar system, but the colonials' lives are anything but happy. For escapism, they pop the wonder drug Can-D, which floats their minds away to a shared fantasy world facilitated by tiny dolls and dioramas called layouts. It's rather like a you-are-there version of The Sims. This service is supplied by the whimsically monikered Perky Pat Layouts, Inc., an Earth-based corporate empire that employs clairvoyant "precogs" to anticipate popularity trends so that they'll know what to sell their pitiful customers before the customers even know they want it. As the UN has declared Can-D illegal on Earth, it's an offworld market that must be vigorously defended against competition.
Competition comes in the form of Palmer Eldritch, an enigmatic, Richard Branson-esque figure who has returned from a voyage to the Proxima Centauri system with a new drug, Chew-Z, that he's hashed together from an alien lichen. (The silliness of product names in Dick's stories somehow just makes them all the more believable.) Not only does Chew-Z not require the use of cheesy layouts in order to create the virtual-world experience, but Eldritch has gone one giant step farther. As subjective time within a Chew-Z dreamworld can go on for years while almost no time has passed in the user's physical life, Eldritch is essentially delivering, in his words, what God has only promised: eternal life. But where exactly does one go when tripping on Chew-Z? Is it a dreamworld of the user's creation, or, more sinister to contemplate, Palmer Eldritch's? With Chew-Z earning UN approval for sale on Earth, will the drug bring panacea or calamity?
Throughout the novel, Dick's signature droll and cockeyed sense of humor — as unique to SF now as it was decades ago — offsets the overwhelming pathos of a human race that has spent so much time and effort fleeing its problems rather than confronting and solving them, that the point of no return disappeared in the rearview long ago. This has particular resonance in the 21st century, nearly half a century after Three Stigmata's original publication, in the theme of global warming and ecodisaster, as well as a renewed focus on religious fundamentalism and its fixation on chasing immortality and divine favor over living in the here and now. As always, the prescience of Dick's thematic concerns can floor you. When you read the chapters where everyone's zoning out on Can-D and retreating into their fantasy layouts, while you're chuckling, it's easy to wonder what Dick might have made of today's social networking communities. We're not yet to the point where everyone prefers tweeting and immersing themselves in World of Warcraft to the exclusion of actual human interaction. But that some people have already crossed that line would be, I imagine, a phenomenon of great interest (amusement vying with bemusement, I'd suspect) to the man.
Nearly everyone in this novel wants redemption to some degree, and not only do they find that God can't provide it, but that God, or whatever it is that's overtaken Palmer Eldritch, is the most adrift of them all. Barney Mayerson, the Perky Pat precog who inadvertently helps set the entire conflict with Eldritch in motion by spitefully rejecting the work of his ex-wife for inclusion in the latest layouts, quickly finds he simply does not know what to do to atone. Eventually emigrating to the hardscrabble colonies of Mars, he has to choose between total surrender to Eldritch's increasingly invasive incursions into everyone's perceptions of reality, or a return to humanity in its simplest form, without the dubious comforts of delusion that are so ubiquitous. If there's a redemption story in this novel, it's Mayerson's, because he's the only one with the courage to reject everything being sold to him — a business in which he was complicit — as redemption, when it's really all just empty dreams.