Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick

‘For everyone lost in the endlessly multiplicating realities of the modern world, remember: Philip K. Dick got there first.’ –Terry Gilliam


Where to begin with this bad acid trip of a story???  Ah. Here we are: What a great book!

Three Stigmata is so many things. The best analogy I can give is it’s an onion that you are peeling one layer at a time as you try to get to the core of its reality. Only, it has no core. It just keeps unraveling and unraveling and unraveling in your hands and in your mind until you start to wonder if onions ever existed in the first place, and what will happen if you keep unraveling? Are you sure you even want to find out?

But a brief bit of story background first.

It’s sometime in the 21st century and Earth is a sun blasted wasteland where no living thing can survive outdoors for very long unprotected. Humanity is cramped into mega-cities full of countless towers with countless floors constantly blasting A/C. Soon Earth will be uninhabitable and it’s why every habitable planet within the solar system is full of colonies of intrepid humans trying to eke out any kind of existence. Especially Mars. But life on these other planets is depressing. The days are full of routine and the colonists are all left staring at the same hovel walls day in and day out until one day they know they will die.

So enter Leo Bulero and his brilliant Pre-Fash consultant Barney Mayerson. They are #1 and #2 of a company called P.P. Layouts, which constructs doll-like sets (think Barbie and Ken) for people to project hallucinations onto and to feel like they are still on Old Earth when they take an illicit, illegal drug called Can-D. Can-D is grown off-world and shipped throughout the solar system by growers, runners and pushers hired by P.P. Layouts, although this is all hush-hush since Bulero will never openly admit this. The United Nations Authority has been trying to crack down on Can-D for decades but is always one step behind.

Leo has enjoyed a very lucrative monopoly until news breaks that a mega-rich industrialist, Palmer Eldritch, has crash landed on Pluto after being gone for ten long years in deep space. Word on the street also says there is a certain exotic lichen that was found on board Eldritch’s ship, possibly a variant strain of Can-D. This immediately sends shivers of panic through Bulero, who thinks he might finally have a competitor.

palmer Palmer Eldritch, who has artificial eyes, steel teeth and a mechanical arm

He’s right. It quickly comes to light that Palmer Eldritch has with him a product he is calling Chew-Z, and he’s threatening to rock the illegal drug markets with its upcoming release. Leo Bulero takes an immediate flight to the artificial moon that Palmer Eldritch is being hospitalized at to see what’s going on personally. But instead of personally, he is met with some sort of robot contraption that talks and acts like Palmer Eldritch but isn’t Palmer Eldritch. This is when Leo Bulero realizes that somewhere along the way he must have been secretly injected with the new drug, Chew-Z, and from here on out the story is locked in that ever unraveling onion that turns out to be a nightmarish quasi-hell.

It seems that Chew-Z, somehow, is tapped into Palmer Eldritch’s mind and users stay locked for years in whatever hallucinatory world he wants (though they are barely able to recognize it as an hallucination and it actually blends with real reality). He has plans to spread the drug across Earth and all the colonies and therefore take full control over humanity.

But why would people take the drug then? Well, throughout the story as we follow these characters, we see them descend into the very pits of self-pity, loneliness, and their need to escape truth and their real reality–even Palmer Eldritch, whoever or whatever he is. Isolation is a major theme of this work and none expresses it better than Palmer Eldritch when he confesses how lonely deep space can be to Barney in one of their dream worlds.

stigmata The many layers of reality

The imagery of this book is vivid and takes turns you wouldn’t expect. Like when Leo Bulero has full blown conversations with beings that are the evolutionary descendants of ourselves, or when he chokes a little girl in the dream world because he knows it’s actually Eldritch behind the illusion. At times the dreamer will wake and seem to be in reality but then things take a turn for the nightmarish and once again the dreamer, along with the reader, are plunged into the twisted mind of Palmer Eldritch. You the reader cannot escape either.

But it is poor Barney Mayerson, the #2 man of P.P. Layouts, who we get the most closely examined psyche via Chew-Z. He’s a sad man who has regretted every day of his life ever since he divorced his wife and only wishes he could get her back. He takes Chew-Z in a half-baked plan cooked up by Leo Bulero in order to sabotage the spread of the drug, but instead he finds himself trapped in Palmer Eldritch’s hallucination not knowing what’s real or what’s unreal.  He relives his mistakes of leaving his wife over and over in Palmer’s world, forever doomed to repeat them.

As time goes on and Barney and Leo dig ever deeper into this rabbit hole, they eventually conclude that Palmer Eldritch can no longer be considered human. They surmise that their competitor has been overtaken by something he encountered in his long voyage in deep space, an alien presence which now inhabits what was once the human Palmer Eldritch. What that something is, though, no one can tell. Is it God? Or just a piece of God?

There are so many layers to this book that it’s almost like taking Can-D or Chew-Z itself. One hallucination or layer of reality gives into another one. You think you’re back to the safety and security of what you come to think of as real dependable reality, until people who are talking in a scene start to morph into Palmer Eldritch, and then you realize that no, you are not back in reality, if there ever was such a place. Only Palmer Eldritch’s reality is reality. He controls everything here.

That’s what makes this story so cool. I can imagine its mind-boggling narrative when it was published in 1964, before the drug-addled 60s spread love and peace and open-mindedness into mainstream culture. Dick was way ahead of the charge there. From what I’ve read about this extraordinary American author, he lived for many years in houses chock-full of drug users and peaceniks. He knew what he was describing, he’d been there. You can tell he must have had many, many bad acid trips!

A great PKD quote which will help you get through this story and life in general: “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it does not go away.”

You know he learned this from first hand experience.


"The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick"

Philip K. Dick

Credit: Frank Ronan


Unfortunately, or however you view it, PKD himself became a victim of the multiple layers of reality. One day he experienced an epiphany of some kind, something he attributed to a closeness with God or the Other world, he didn’t know which. He spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had happened to him. Whether it was a religious experience or a bout of mental illness, no one knows. Not even PKD.

To close, this book is a trip. PKD’s writing style is not conventional. Sometimes it’s rough, at times sloppy. He uses a lot of semicolons, something that contemporary editors and the writing world frown upon nowadays. But the story itself transcends all that. If you’ve ever contemplated the nature of reality, if you’ve ever caught yourself wondering if reality even exists at all (some people think we’re all living in a computer simulation) then this book is for you. Even if you haven’t, read it and treat yourself to a perspective that will be brand new to you. It might just have you questioning everything around you.

Just a head’s up, though. If the person you are talking to all of a sudden springs artificial eyes, steel teeth and a mechanical arm…then you are about to enter a world of pain!

–Charles Moritz

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