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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, written in Philip K. Dick’s brilliant middle-period style (1962-1969), came at a time in science-fiction history when drug novels proliferated. Other works of this type include William Burroughs’ Nova Express (1964), Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia (1975; earlier published in parts), and Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).

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The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch sprang from a particularly prolific time in Dick’s writing career. This novel was one of twelve written between 1962 and 1965, most notably The Man in the High Castle (1962), Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964), Martian Time-Slip (1964), and Dr. Bloodmoney (1965). Dick followed this streak with six more novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and the haunting Ubik (1969).

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a profound yet accessible work, and it is one of Dick’s finest. The novel contains elements of religious philosophy and existentialism, and Dick would later put a Gnostic Christian interpretation on it—with Eldritch in the role of the demiurge, the “deluded creator god.” By the time the novel ends—and it ends rather abruptly, seemingly without resolving the story—readers are not certain at what point they entered Eldritch’s reality. Indeed, the first line of the novel—“His head unnaturally aching, Barney Mayerson woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom in an unfamiliar conapt building”—leads readers to believe that an unaccustomed shifting of reality has already taken place. Mayerson’s first question upon waking is “Where am I?”

Dick originally envisioned Palmer Eldritch as unmitigated evil, taking over the minds and souls of all inhabitants of the solar system, perhaps with alien help. In the light of his later interests in Gnosticism and the interpretation he himself lent to his body of work along those lines, it appears that the character of Palmer Eldritch must be understood to be more complex. Like the demiurge of later Gnostic thought, who is the controller of the universe but not the ultimate God, Eldritch is morally ambiguous. Although he comes to control the subjective realities of the novel’s inhabitants, his ends are didactic: His goal is for people to come to understand the problems that keep them isolated.

Although Bulero ostensibly is the hero of the novel, he fails in his attempt to destroy his competitor, Eldritch, and never escapes from the elusive and illusional reality he encounters through ingestion of the alien lichen, Chew-Z. Although he sees himself as “protector” of the system, his true intent is to save his own monopoly, P. P. Layouts, and to be the sole purveyor of hallucinogenic drugs and escapist subworlds. E-therapy, accelerating his “evolution” and making him a “bubblehead,” does not save him. In this readers certainly are meant to see the failure of science.

The real hero of the novel is the antiheroic, neurotic precog Barney Mayerson. He alone is a developing rather than static character, one who finally comes to accept the fact that he cannot change the past with his former wife Emily. He alone appears to have understood Eldritch. By internalizing the invasion, Mayerson comes to understand the alien, and insofar as the alien simulates the creative as well as the destructive potentials of the self, Mayerson’s coming to terms with it must mean a moral and spiritual victory. For his part, Eldritch takes a special interest in Mayerson: He forces him to confront his past, work through it, come to his death in the tomb-world, and be reborn. Ultimately, it is Mayerson’s view of future reality rather than that of Bulero that the author appears to endorse.

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