The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
(1965) is a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Fiction in the same year. As with many of Dick’s works, the novel uses many science fiction tropes: technology, apocalyptic climate change, interstellar travel, and elevated abilities like precognition. More notably, this work also explores religious themes, as well as ideas of philosophy and reality.
The novel opens as Barney Mayerson, a precog, wakes up hungover in a strange apartment next to a beautiful woman he does not recognize. He does not remember what happened the night before, which his lovely companion Roni Fugate attributes to his precognitive abilities. She is also a precog, as well as his new assistant at “Perky Pat” Layouts Inc. He realizes that she might well take his job if he gets drafted. In little more than a week, he must report to the military hospital to take a mental evaluation. If he passes, he might be involuntarily sent to the Mars colonies. The colonies are horrific places that no one wants to go, including the colonists. Because Earth’s climate has made the planet all but uninhabitable—the heat is so dangerous that special cooling gear must be worn just to go outside during the day—the U.N. has started a colonizing campaign to populate other planets. The conditions in the colonies are so harsh that the colonists turn to the combination of an illegal drug (Can-D) and alternate realities (layouts) to cope; this is the product that P.P. Layouts controls.
Barney meets with Richard Hnatt (who married Barney’s ex), who is trying to sell ceramic pots to P.P. Layouts to miniaturize as accessories in their virtual world, but recognizing the pots as his ex-wife’s work Barney, rejects them.
Unfortunately, Can-D now has competition. Palmer Eldritch, a man who has been in deep space for ten years, crash lands on Pluto. The head of P.P. Layouts, Leo Bolero, finds out that Eldritch discovered a compound like Can-D, but even more addictive, and he plans to sell it as Chew-Z. Adding to the bad news is that the U.N. has seized a shipment of Can-D. Leo uses Roni’s precognition to find Eldritch on the moon Ganymede. Roni and Barney also see that Leo kills Eldritch, and Roni warns him against his plan. Richard Hnatt’s rejection at P.P. Layouts means that he signs with their new competitor, Chew-Z.
Leo goes to kill Eldritch but is captured instead and drugged with Chew-Z, which sends him on a wild hallucinogenic trip. From this point on, reality becomes malleable and suspect—with Chew-Z affecting characters’ perceptions of reality and simulacrums of Eldritch making trouble, everything that happens must be analyzed carefully. Meanwhile, Eldritch sells his drug to the Buddhist-controlled U.N. with the promise of immortality—users can control their own experiences and fictional worlds and can inhabit other forms. More than that, everyone has their own alternate reality, instead of the shared alternate reality sold by P.P. Layouts and Can-D. Leo tries to escape, but his escape is only another part of his alternate reality, not true reality. Eventually, Leo wakes up from his Chew-Z trip and returns home, where he promptly fires Barney for not coming to save him. (Barney had considered it, but saw himself dying along the way, and decided to stay home.)
Barney is sent to Mars, but Leo comes to him with an idea—go to Mars, take Chew-Z, and then file a complaint about it to the U.N. It’s a terrible plan, but Barney agrees. Along the way, he meets Anne Hawthorne, a Christian missionary who wants to recruit souls to real religion instead of the alternate reality religion offered by Can-D. Once they arrive on Mars, he moves in with three colonist couples who have decided to give up on Can-D and try Chew-Z. Ann, however, sees the futility of her endeavors and worries that instead of converting people to her cause, the colonists will convert her to theirs. She gives up and joins the colonists in their last Can-D venture. Barney, however, abstains from taking any drugs. He keeps agreeing to plans to take Chew-Z and then report bad results but avoids doing so for a while. He works in his garden and reflects on the effect of drugs on the colonists, and how real life loses all point and savor if there’s always a fake reality to run away to whenever life gets boring or hard.
Eldritch’s simulacrum (a form that he controls) arrives on Mars to sell Chew-Z to the colonists. Barney finally takes the drug. What follows is a nightmarish kaleidoscope of experiences with his ex-wife, Roni, and back to his ex-wife with Richard Hnatt who metamorphosizes into Eldritch, who haunts Barney’s entire trip. When he thinks he has woken up from Chew-Z, he tells Anne that the experience was awful, but he craves another dose of the drug. He continues his hallucinogenic trip where time seems to melt with the past, and his identity starts to blur with Eldritch. Eventually, he realizes that his consciousness has somehow switched places and bodies with Eldritch—Leo will kill Barney as Eldritch, and Eldritch will continue as Barney. Eldritch’s plan is to occupy and control the minds of everyone on Mars. Meanwhile, presumably in the real world, Leo and Felix Blau are concerned at Barney’s radio silence. They have not heard from him and do not know if he is following the plan. Barney and Anne discuss God, the possibility of Eldritch being a god, being possessed by Eldritch, and compare Chew-Z to the apple in the garden of Eden. He resolves to not take the drug again—as long as he avoids Chew-Z, the Eldritch that Leo eventually kills will be the real Eldritch.
The novel ends ambiguously, with no one—including the reader—sure of what is real or what may be a Chew-Z fantasy. The three stigmata that seem to denote a Chew-Z trip and Eldritch are Eldritch’s cyborg attributes: metal arm, steel teeth, and artificial eyes.