Monday, June 10, 2013

Pondering the Imponderable -- Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch"

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My love of Philip K. Dick (PKD)'s novels has always confused me. There are parts that seem dated -- like the protagonist of this novel, Barney Mayerson, sleeping with his assistant in this outing, The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer . With full knowledge of his boss. And not one word about sexual harassment.

Quaint. And sexist -- though Dick really does not seem sexist.

And then there is the bad science, so typical of the era. On the surface, PKD's plots are similar to those of Frederick Pohl. Relying on easy space travel. Colonies Mars (possible, but very likely more difficult than most science fiction writers in the 50's and 60's imagined) and Venus (nearly impossible, and undesirable due to its thick atmosphere and green-house built-up heat). And, quite often, PKD's diction also seems like Pohl, Kornbluth, Smith, etc. Simple sentences. Snappy action.

And PKD's characters, in general, are flat. In this book, for instance, Leo Bulero is just a typical big businessman. Who has no ambition, no family connections, etc. His only concern is money. Another example is Mayerson's assistant, Roni Fugate. She is just a power-grabber, sleeping an manipulating her way "to the top."

But where PKD hits, he turns the trivial and campy into philosophical insights and inquiries that are, to me, captivating. He does this with wit, in a way similar to Vonnegut -- though PKD is less misanthropic. In The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer PKD toys with the idea of God trying to contact humanity. And he uses a hallucinogenic drug that has some wicked after effects to examine the question, "What would it look like if a human was actually possessed by God? And if that God, wearing the mask of that human, would be able to enter people's dreams and hallucinations at will?" Which leads to the infinite regress, "Our God hallucinates a hallucination; which is contained in God's God's hallucination. Which is contained in God's God's God's hallucination.... And so on and so on, ad infinitum.

No other science fiction author does these explorations of epistemology nearly as well as PKD. And few write with the snappy wit and easy, satirical eye. So, while perhaps dated, The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer was an enjoyable ride. Full of fun, with ingenious musings and an interesting concept examined in a neat way.

I would recommend this to both science fiction fans, and fans of postmodernist literature. Because, by and large, I find PKD as good as or better than most postmodernists. And a lot more fun to read due to the simplicity of style.

Leo Walsh is an author, living in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow him at

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