Three Stigmata Asks all the Cyberpunk Questions in Another Classic Philip K Dick Novel
‘You were wrong,’ Eldritch said. ‘I did not find God in the Prox system. But I found something better.’
Philip K Dick is one of the heavies of cyberpunk history. His work remains an open treasure chest of fulfilling novels, old interviews and a number of documentaries that display the man’s genius and prophetic insight. Thankfully, due to our present culture’s in-the-woodwork- paranoiacs and psychopaths willing to bear witness to not just their pain but also their forebears and history, Dick remains a vibrant part of the culture.
He is represented not just in the multiple blockbuster adaptations of his fiction works into films such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Paycheck, Next, and Minority Report and of course one of my top five novels of all time with its own great adaptation, A Scanner Darkly. His influence is also called forth by artists of all sorts who find meaning in his work, from the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack heavies Run the Jewels to casual references in artist The Weeknd’s song Snowchild using last name Dick as a double entendre.
Not to mention the numerous fans web-wide who pay homage in blog posts and artworks and references daily.
Inasmuch as I know a bit of Philip K. Dick and his works, the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch displays a character I recognize. It’s that of an outsider fully ingratiate with fringe topics and weird culture trying to make sense of spiritual experiences he’s personally inhabited while trying to bring them back down to terra firma.
Philip K Dick Asks “What if God was One of Us?”
‘God,’ Eldritch said, ‘promises eternal life. I can do better; I can deliver it.
‘Deliver it how?’ […]
‘Through the lichen which we’re marketing under the name Chew-Z, Eldritch said. ‘It bears very little resemblance to your own product, Leo. Can-D is obsolete, because what does it do? Provides a few moments of escape, nothing but fantasy. Who wants it? Who needs that when they can get the genuine thing from me?’
He added, ‘We’re there, now.’
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch opens up a vast array of intriguing and perplexing questions about the nature of reality while cracking open the old religious tomes to come at ancient theologies and dogmas with invigorating ways and means. One would expect nothing less from PKD.
This is the man who had an entire tome of his writings on the nature of God and Reality released back in 2011 with The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
The method Dick’s science fiction uses to explore these questions in The Three Stigmata is to invent fantastical drugs and explore the implications of their use. Much like a theological philosopher would use ‘Negative’ or ‘Apophatic Theology’ to approach knowledge of God by attempting “to approach God, the Divine, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God”.
To invent drugs that do not actually exist may, as science fiction often does, change reality to look at it in new ways. Like shifting a crystal in a kaleidoscope view to explore new facets of its hidden visage, this could be considered offhand as play of a non serious kind or as spiritual, exploratory faith work. Knowing Philip K. Dick, I wondered while reading what he might be saying about actual drug experiences, in metaphrase.
I Want. New Drug. I want CAN-D
In the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, there are two main drugs vying for market territory and for much more in the bargain. The drug that is widely established is the drug CAN-D, which has widespread use though it is illicit in the eyes of the United Nations. But life is near unbearable in the colonies, where mankind is spreading out away from earth. The people, often emigrating there under the coercion of a draft to populate these colonies, need a diversion. So CAN-D is widespread. Due to its effects, the drug formulates a kind of sacrament with religious trappings among the people who otherwise toil at the endless demeaning task of terraform farming.
Endlessly pushing uphill, the colonists nearly universally use CAN-D to ‘translate’ themselves to more palatable surroundings while authorities on the whole look the other way. As is often the case with drug use and a culture of suppression, the usage and economy buffeting CAN-D’s culture spell out not just sanction and condoning but mutual assured subduction. It’s like tectonic plates shifting, where the culture of drug use collides with the culture of politicians and power and they get out of each other’s way in inevitable patterns. One rises above the other in each confrontation and display action, but inevitably they are part of the same system of cover.
The users of CAN-D partake gathered around miniature shrine-like displays of a life they’d like to imagine, called ‘layouts’, which all happen to be designed and sanctioned by a company called PP Layouts. PP meaning Perky Pat. They are uniform in their astral habitation while out of their minds and bodies in the ethereal fantasy of something better. Perky Pat is their totem of translation whose domesticated life, like barbie playthings with available purchase add-ons such as the barbie dream-oven, translate into a different experience when under the drug. They can travel to the beach, indulge in casual sex, but all according to what is pre-set in the layout. Only the ‘minned’ (miniaturized) objects they have purchased for their set.
The effect of translation, where one is honed onto the totem object in such a disorienting fashion, is humbling and distracting spiritually. One is elementally disturbed from their usual toil into a dogmatic slumber of being someone else, somewhere else albeit controlled in the sense of latching on to a pre-fashioned icon. It also becomes numbingly mundane so that though it is addictive and allows the colonists to form tight-knit mutual networks in their individual hovels. The effect is to keep the colonists, whose lives are otherwise all hardship and misery, distracted to the point of not putting in their days work farming. Interestingly, the colonists can share bodies and cohabitate the consciousness of the dolls so that they are forced to give up some level of control to work together to move as one.
There’s a scene where one novelist explains that if one person wants to go in a particular direction against the others, they become stuck. They must agree before anything occurs. Regardless of whether the drug is directly to blame for the stagnation, the Mars colony is a stagnant lifeless culture. Their society is headed nowhere. The pressed colonists sent to farm are not doing so. Incidentally, when a new drug claiming to be better comes along, the colonists are fairly quick to abandon their old one despite it being akin to a religious sacrament for them.
Who Is Palmer Eldritch?
Meanwhile back on Earth, the elites are obsessed with a risky genetic therapy that lurches their evolution forward. Supposedly it makes them more advanced, or maybe just transforming them as they are to all outward appearances, ‘bubbleheads’. They wind appearing with larger frontal brain lobes, and a horny rind that looked like a hairy crust, coconut-like. This is partially in fashion because the earth is in the grips of global warming that makes it unbearable for humans as they are.
The masses lie huddled in hyper-air-conditioned apartment complexes, using loads of energy to make life and normality sustainable. When the air conditioning goes out in a building, people are likely to die if they are not promptly rescued.
Onto this scene wanders a stranger from the stars. Or rather, a familiar face who’s been gone so long and bridged such uncharted territories that he appears strange and alarming but oddly welcome when he returns emblematically with a crash.
The merchant-explorer Palmer Eldritch is back from his excursion across vast reaches of space to the enigmatic Prox system, and he comes bearing gifts. In an upset to Barney Mayerson, who works for the head of Perky Pat and who is the main distributor of CAN-D, Palmer Eldritch’s return sets off alarm bells. Eldritch came from Prox with a new type of drug he’s set on hawking to replace CAN-D which he calls CHEW-Z. And this one will be fully sanctioned by the United Nations.
Both drugs are of the same lichen culture. CAN-D growing natively on Titan, sliced into bindles and chewed for the well-known experience of translation. CHEW-Z, a new experience from a new culture brought from Prox Contains in each slice something wholly different.
‘They’re very religious in the colonies. So I hear, anyhow. What denomination are you, Mr. Mayerson?’
‘Um,’ he said, stuck.
‘I think you’d better find out before we get there. They’ll ask you and expect you to attend services.’ She added, ‘It’s primarily the use of that drug–you know. Can-D. It’s brought about a lot of conversions to the established churches . . . although many of the colonists find in the drug itself a religious experience that’s adequate for them. […]
‘You know how the eating of Can-D translates–as they call it–the partaker to another world. It’s secular, however, in that it’s temporary and only a physical world. The bread and the wine–‘
‘I’m sorry, Miss Hawthorne,’ Barney said, ‘but I’m afraid I can’t believe in that, the body and blood business. It’s too mystical for me.’ […]
‘Are you going to try Can-D?’ Anne asked.
Anne said, ‘You have faith in that.’
Three Stigmata Puts Transubstantiation VS Consubstantiation VS Universal Simulation
Here’s the issue. what is the difference, real or apparent, between CAN-D, and CHEW-Z? In the novel, it’s presented as a blind taste test choice. You know, kind of like the Pepsi challenge.
‘I’ll tell you frankly: I think the use of Can-D indicates a genuine hunger on the part of these people to find a return to what we in the Neo-American Church–‘
‘I think,’ Barney said, gently, ‘you should let these people alone.’ And me, too, he thought. I’ve got enough troubles as it is; don’t add your religious fanaticism and make it worse. But she did not look like his idea of a religious fanatic, nor did she talk like one. He was puzzled. Where had she gotten such strong, steady convictions? He could imagine it existing in the colonies, where the need was so great, but she had acquired it on Earth.
Therefore the existence of Can-D, the experience of group translation, did not fully explain it. Maybe, he thought, it’s been the transition by gradual stages of Earth to the hell-like blasted wasteland which all of them could foresee–hell, experience!–that had done it; the hope of another life, on different terms, had been reawakened.
Philip K Dick Says Tend Your Own Garden
Without going into spoilers as I think this is a good book for people to read for themselves and has a lot to say to cyberpunks, the person who came back from the Prox System, PALMER ELDRITCH, is not what he seems. The drug, CHEW-Z holds metaphysical secrets and snares of an altogether different grift and glare than the “translations” CAN-D offers.
Somehow, Something, a power or presence hides in every dose of the spreading CHEW-Z phenomenon. It’s up to its very corporate competitors to figure out what is hiding therein. One may simultaneously be twisted into servility to an outside force under CHEW-Z’s influence while rolled fundamentally alone in a circumvolution of isolation more solipsistic than the joint-willing necessitated by CAN-D’s compromises.
Did I neglect to mention that some people in this universe have precognitive abilities? That they can see the future? Among them, aforementioned Barney Mayerson. The question is whether being able to see the future will be enough to offset the cold hand of a creature acting who has already been there. For that is what comes up in the stakes for CAN-D versus CHEW-Z.
The Cyberpunk War On Drugs
And as a fight between a drug that numbs the mind by fulfilling its dreams and a dream that fulfills its drug by numbing your heart, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has much to say about the complex nods we may owe to levels of reality, however unpleasant the guise which they present to us the truth.
An early plot point involves Barney Mayerson trying to dodge the draft to be sent to the colonies by employing artificial intelligence in a suitcase set-up as a psychiatrist function called Dr. Smile. Barney is attempting to work with Dr. Smile to give himself enough psychiatric upset to become non-viable to be able to be drafted.
This kind of Venn-diagram Twilight Zone twerk is where many of Philip K Dick’s spiritual insights bubble up from. Like a catch-22, there is madness in the overlap. Alternatively, the hypnagogic stare into this close-to-void stardance is where the secrets of the universe explode out from in what, for lesser minds, bring only collapse.
“One Must Have Chaos Within to Give Birth to a Dancing Star” said Friedrich Nietzsche. Philip K Dick made a career as that starry-eyed dancer.
Thus, this novel holds some perhaps hard won wisdom for both earthers trying to evolve more quickly or for colonists who are having trouble just getting up out of their hovel in the red dawn. Echoing Voltaire in Candide, it might be said what we should not wish for perhaps is that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. After all, this could mean we are given an insensate satiated fantasy. Perhaps what we should wish for instead is that we have this troubled day to gorge ourselves on. That we maintain the right level of crazy, just enough to not be sent away. We have a slice of life with the blessed time and space in which to “cultivate our own garden”.