You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Monday, December 5, 2011


This is how bad things have gotten. Earth is over-heated and over-crowded. If you go outside during the day you must wear a portable cooling pack and stay under anti-thermal protective shades until you can grab a passing jet taxi or "thermosealed, interbuilding commute car." The U.N. has a forced emigration policy designed to provide colonists to Mars and a few other locations. But everyone knows that life off Earth will be even more miserable than what they face here. The colonists serve no real purpose since agriculture is difficult with frozen methane storms and pesky alien creatures that may eat either your struggling crops or yourself. When draft notices arrive, anyone who can afford one hires a psychiatrist in a box. Its purpose is to keep your mind so addled you will never pass the psych examine when the U.N. tries to ship you off to the boonies.

Barney Mayerson's shrink is Dr. Smile, and he is supposed to be one of the best. But Barney should be able to beat his draft notice in any case. He is the New York Pre-Fash consultant for Perky Pat Enterprises. This means he uses his precognitive abilities to judge whether products presented as possible new additions to Perky Pat's layout will be a success. PP is a doll with a dreamy life and dreamy boyfriend --let's face it, they're Barbie and Ken. Colonists in their Martian hovels spend hours playing with Perky Pat, aided by the illegal drug, Can-D. (The drug is manufactured on Venus by Perky Pat Enterprises.) A chaw of Can-D gives participants up to an hour or so of complete identification with PP and her world.

Life for Barney, his new girlfriend/assistant Betty, and their boss Leo Bolero is good until word comes that renegade industrialist Palmer Eldritch has crash landed on Pluto after a decade spent outside the solar system. Rumor has it that that he has brought back with him a new drug, Chew-Z. (PKD was never one to shy away from puns.) Chew-Z is better than Can-D. It requires no layouts but instead puts the user into a completely realized fantasy world. And Eldritch has won U.N approval, so it is legal. Perky Pat Enterprises will be destroyed.

This might be a good time to mention that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is PKD's first overtly religious novel. It is one of seven novels written during the amphetamine-fueled years of 1963/64. There is some question as to when PKD first took LSD, but it is difficult not to imagine Can-D and Chew-Z as versions of marijuana and acid. Can-D is a party drug. Chew-Z promises to reveal new levels of reality. It is part of a spiritual quest, but it could also be a trap. There comes a Voltairian moment when Barney decides to chuck everything and just tend his own scraggly Martian garden. That doesn't last for long. Barney's quest will bring him into contact with the world of Chew-Z, Palmer Eldritch himself, and whatever exists beyond Palmer Eldritch.

This is the book that 30 years ago sold me on Philip K. Dick. I had seen Blade Runner and read, since it was supposed to be PKD's best novel, The Man in the High Castle. I liked it OK, but then I happened to pick up Palmer Eldritch. The screwball pacing, deadpan humor, and imaginative monsters were the perfect cover for the serious thought that lurked in the background. Even though I was hooked -- an appropriate term when discussing PKD -- I read him only sporadically until this past year. Now reading all his SF in more or less chronological order is at times a pleasure, a chore, and even saddening. It's my own Chew-Z trip. And I am just now getting to the good stuff.

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