Body and blood: a review of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

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“God,” Eldritch said, “promises eternal life. I can do better; I can deliver it.”

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchWhen I finished my boyfriend’s favorite Philip K. Dick book last week, I had no idea what to say. That’s probably a sign that I’m not crazy about it, but I generally do like the novel. I’m just not sure what to take away from it.

You know the feeling. We’ve all been there. To me, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) wasn’t transmitting a profound galactic message from the future here to Earth as much as it was pondering what’s out there and who’s watching over us. If we sent someone out into the depths of space, like the book did Palmer Eldritch, what would he tell us if he returned?

No one quite knows what Eldritch has seen, but he comes back to Earth (or Terra) … different. At this point, people are probably pretty weird to him, too — most of the world is chewing what’s called Can-D, an illegal drug that “translates” you into a communal plane of being. It’s like getting high and imagining you’re a doll, only all the women go into one body (Perky Pat’s is the most popular), and all the men into another, and you forget about your crummy life for a while. The comedown afterward is what makes users so desperate for more, especially those living out their lives in exile on the Martian colonies. People are depressed and bored.

When Eldritch reemerges, he brings with him the ingredients for a new substance, one that won’t be illegal and will be even more realistic and longer-lasting than the current market holder: Chew-Z. The book gets into some funny stuff here — when you’re finished decoding its lingo, you’re left figuring out its attitudes on Christianity and God. You see, taking Chew-Z is an out-of-body, almost holy experience where you can be reborn as anything and create anything. You essentially invent your own world, and you can live in it for as long as you wish.

Philip K. Dick makes a lot of parallels between it and the “eternal life” God promises after death. But like the afterlife, it’s a kind of heaven or hell situation, and it has some frightening effects on users. The fake reality you enter when you use Chew-Z doesn’t leave you — at least not as quickly as it should. That’s how Eldritch — or what’s left of him — plans to get his hooks into every living being on the planet … an Earth where the sun bears down too hot, people undergo procedures to “evolve,” and psychics called “precogs” peer into the future as a means of business, like predicting fashion trends. It’s a very different world, but the people in it aren’t so alien to us. We all seek to escape the tedium of our daily lives, and in doing so we immerse ourselves in entertainment and expensive hobbies we don’t need. Some of us even turn to drugs.

But the idea behind The Three Stigmata seems to be that committing ourselves wholly to one entity — that’s scary. That’s a total removal of identity. People either react negatively to Chew-Z, wanting it banned, or they accept the blissful fantasy as truth. But it’s also a commentary on God: Once you take communion, he’s in you for good. And his ways spread everywhere.

Is Eldritch, a kind of warped Christ-like figure, a dangerous messenger of the one God? Can God be evil and good? And is what comes to Earth actually a manifestation of God, or is something bigger out there, waiting, with all the answers — or none at all? These are some of the questions the book asks, and if you’re open-minded about religion and its implications … thinking about it is kind of creepy.

Bottom line: If you’re into science fiction and you’re not easily offended religiously, The Three Stigmata might pique your curiosity.

What I liked: Halfway through, the reading started to get a lot better because it was so weird. There’s also literary value to be found.

What I wasn’t expecting: Its views on accepting Christ, body and soul.

Grade: C+

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