The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of Dick’s great psychedelic-Gnostic novels.
It takes place in a future where global warming has made living on Earth an impossible, expensive experiment in air-conditioning (people vacation in Antarctica, etc); space colonies, which are populated by a forced-draft system, offer an even less appealing life of miserable hunkering in communal hovels against impossibly harsh environments. The only way to enjoy life, literally, is to consume an illegal psychotropic drug called Can-D which induces collective hallucinations in its users, transporting them from their bodies into miniature dollhouse-worlds of idealized Earth life called “Perky Pat Layouts.” The colonists obsessively collect miniatures for their layouts, hoping to make the experience of transporting, becoming the Barbie-like Perky Pat, as authentic to real life as possible. Meanwhile, a corporation on Earth called P.P. Layouts makes a killing illegally trafficking Can-D and miniaturizing trendy housewares to sell to soul-starved Martian colonists.
It’s crazy! What a brilliant and weird premise! I mean, there is the fundamental strangeness of the idea, using sci-fi to invent new drugs — but it’s also such a neat literary metaphor. Can-D “translation” is a microcosm of the very act of reading: it’s a translation into a miniature world, one you can hold in your hand, the book being the “layout,” if you will, the characters all flawed versions of “Perky Pat.” With Can-D, people can come together and become a single entity, communally embodying one fictional person. How many people are reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch at any given moment? Aren’t we all temporarily inhabiting Palmer Eldritch like these bereft Martian colonists inhabit Perky Pat? I love the meta-implication that we’re all starving colonists, huddling together with our books against an alienating world; at the same time, the experience is transient, false, and leaves our minds muddled with questions.
The central drama of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is the introduction of a new drug, Chew-Z, which advertises that “GOD PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE. WE DELIVER IT.” At this point, the Can-D/Chew-Z drug dialectic devolves into an ontological darkness that I cannot fully elucidate, save to say that Chew-Z annihilates the literary-translation metaphor of the first drug. Chew-Z, a kind of demented DMT, rather than translating its users into a temporary, subjective “high” of collective Barbie-ism, takes them to seemingly endless plane of alternate time and space, populated by their own memories and desires. On Chew-Z, they can live forever as a spectre of themselves, correcting their past and visiting their alternate futures. While a trip only lasts minutes in the “real” world, it can take an eternity to play itself out in the universe the drug unleashes in the user’s mind. If they change their minds mid-trip, no go: they have to wait forever. It’s eternal life, it’s death, it’s sinister.
Is this how Dick understood reading? Not temporary, not collective, but a vast alternate reality in which you feel as though you are part of the world but in which you are essentially, and horrendously, alone?