Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Inner Limits

Mutt Ploughman Reviews Philip K. Dick's novel "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" (1965)

AFTER DECADES OF GRASS-ROOTS DEVOTION, and beatification by a gradually expanding college of periodicals and arts organizations, the literary canonization of the science fiction master Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) has finally come to pass. This summer the Library of America, whose function is to preserve the work of this nation’s greatest writers, is publishing a volume of four of Dick’s best science fiction novels, one of which is 1965’s brilliant and fascinating The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

In Palmer Eldritch, Dick warns of an overcrowded earth (he also prophesies on global warming convincingly) in which human beings are ‘drafted’ by the government to mine other planets for resources. Life both on the slowly baking Earth and on these colonies has become increasingly pointless and empty for most people, which accounts for the tremendous popularity of a substance called Can-D, a hallucinatory drug.

In a Dickian splash of creativity and weirdness, the users of this drug, instead of floating off into some nameless void, inhabit tiny dolls that are placed inside miniature models with buildings, towns, and natural features called ‘layouts’. Can-D users gather around one of these layouts (like the board in a board game), ingest the drug through the mouth, and play out alternate-world adventures while their corporeal bodies remain in a semi-conscious trance.

Dick’s hero is the hapless Barney Mayerson, a low-level salesman of these layouts who suffers from a predisposition towards fundamentally theological questions. He is dispatched by his employer to investigate a rumor that a once-famous explorer, Palmer Eldritch, has returned from a decade-long venture to the outer reaches of space, and that he has brought something extraordinary back with him.

Palmer Eldritch – or something greater – has indeed returned, Mayerson learns, and his booty is a new substance, the hallucinatory effects of which make Can-D seem like mere titillation. As Eldritch himself explains to the existentially strung-out Mayerson, ‘God promises eternal life. I can do better. I can deliver it.’ Is redemption actually possible?

What follows is the sort of bleak, thrilling, and incisive tale that made Philip K. Dick a sui generis fantast, a kind of literary Palmer Eldritch. Like Barney Mayerson, however, the spoils for Dick’s trouble and his courage were few, and came too late.

What distinguishes Dicks’ novels from his contemporaries’ work is an insatiable appetite for the ultimate Reality, the Truth behind the lie of the modern world, and the brutally honest accounting of the disappointments and pitfalls man can encounter in the pursuit of same. ‘Isn’t a miserable reality better than the most interesting illusion?’ asks Mayerson. If that question had a clear answer, we might all be better off, but there would be no Philip K. Dick novels to trip through.

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