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Literature / The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

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"Choosy chewers choose Chew-Z!"
—advertisement for the latest hallucinogenic drug

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a 1965 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick.

The plot begins as several people are having very bad days. Barney Mayerson, a precognative fashion market analyst with a disaster of a personal life, has learned he's been drafted for the Martian colonization effort. This means leaving behind his life on Earth, and his cozy job at Perky Pat Layouts: producers of the popular Perky Pat line of collectables. Said items just happen to be perfect for guiding and enhancing a multiple-user sims-like experience by those using Can-D, a drug which induces a communal Virtual Reality-like hallucination.

His ex-wife Emily, meanwhile, learns that her attempt to sell her pottery designs to Perky Pat Layouts has been rejected, a decision which Barney had no involvement in whatsoever.

Leo Bulero, the head of the company Barney works for, has learned that rival businessman Palmer Eldritch has crash-landed on Pluto on his return from a trade mission with the aliens of the Prox system. Much to Bulero's dismay, Palmer not only seems to have miraculously survived, he's brought back a drug that allegedly makes Can-D seem like a cheap imitation. If true, the company's massive profits from both its official products and its off-the-books monopoly on Can-D could evaporate overnight.

From there things get increasingly weird in classic PKD fashion as the stakes slowly escalate far beyond financial concerns and personal relationships.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Crapsack World, Escapist Sanctuary: Climate change has left the Earth almost unlivable, while overpopulation is such a pressing problem that the government has started conscripting people in order to colonize the other planets of the solar system just to ease the pressure. Unfortunately, colonial life is so bare and soul-crushing that many colonists have turned to the use of Can-D, an illegal drug that allows its users to share idyllic hallucinations guided by doll furniture. However, the mysterious Palmer Eldritch has created a new drug called Chew-Z that can provide an even more immersive experience for the stimulation-starved colonists, and without the need for props. Best not ask about the side-effects, though...
  • Escapism: Life on Mars is so soul-crushing the colonists lose themselves in simulacra of real life, acted out via a parody of Barbie dolls and copious amounts of drugs.
  • Evolution Power-Up: "Evolutionary therapy" is popular among the rich. It makes your cranium large and bubble-like, and even increases your intelligence, although in rare cases it can backfire and de-evolve you into a monkey-like state. The best part? It works by stimulating the gland that controls evolution.
  • Fantastic Drug: "Can-D" and "Chew-Z".
  • Goal-Oriented Evolution: "Evolutionary therapy" is popular among the rich. It makes your cranium large and bubble-like, and increases your intelligence, although in rare cases it can backfire and de-evolve you into a monkey-like state. The best part? It works by stimulating the gland that controls evolution. However, evolution is at least somewhat affected by environment. The evolved people also develop hard ridges on their heads to combat the intense heat of the Earth (which will kill any normal person who isn't literally carrying an air conditioner on his back). Later on, one character runs across people from the future, who look more like The Greys because the Earth is undergoing an Ice Age.
  • Humanoid Abomination: What Palmer seems to have become or merged with at some point in his mission to contact an alien species.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: The Perky Pat dolls are an obvious reference to the then-five years old Barbie.
  • Meaningful Name: Palmer Eldritch.
  • MegaCorp: P. P. Layouts, Inc. has near-total control over the entertainment available to the Martian colonists, until Eldritch comes along to challenge them.
  • Mundane Utility: Two of the main characters are "pre-fash consultants", people with precognitive powers employed to find out whether or not various products will become fashionable before they're accepted for production.
  • Reality Bleed: The drug "Chew-Z", discovered by Eldritch in the Prox system, seems to have this effect, although the book is deliberately ambiguous.
  • Reality Warper: Palmer Eldritch. Maybe. Some readers have argued that he gives people drugs that let them experience all sorts of bizarre things while, incidentally, causing them to gain Palmer's physical characteristics and think more like him.
  • Recursive Reality: It's an article of faith among many Martian colonists that the drug Can-D does this, rather than merely causing shared hallucinations, as most non-users believe. Things get much more ambiguous when Eldritch brings an alien drug, Chew-Z, back from the Prox system.
  • Red Right Hand: Palmer Eldritch has horizontally slitted metal eyes, metal teeth and a mechanical right arm: all physical signs of his metaphysical transformation into something very other than human.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: The novel involves a plot to Take Over the World through hallucinogens that in theory could take a thousand years to wear off. Every main character takes the drugs at one point or another, more than once a seeming recovery is merely hallucinated. By the end, it's virtually impossible to decide what's "real" and what's not.
  • Self-Plagiarism: The concept of the Perky Pat layouts used by the characters to escape their everyday lives is recycled from Dick's earlier short story "The Days of Perky Pat".
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: Palmer Eldritch.
  • The Virus: Palmer Eldritch distributes an exceptionally trippy drug with the side effect of causing the users to think more like he does than they used to—and also causes them to spontaneously develop Palmer's "three stigmata", which are artificial eyes, a metal jaw, and a replacement arm.