Philip K. Dick, “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (1964): Work, Leisure, and Coping

It is a feeling we all experience sometimes. It is that dread one feels Monday morning before going to work. It is the feeling of futility and pointlessness that both students and teachers feel during a class. It reflects itself in the envy we feel for the squirrel running freely outside of our office window. It reoccurs at the end of the day or the end of the week as that slight feeling of freedom before we realize we have bills to pay, perfunctory “dates” with spouses, or tedious soccer games with the children filled with peers that make us almost miss our fellow employees (at least we share with coworkers the despair). Late capitalist advice mongers call it “burnout” and offer suggestions for finding value in our jobs again. On some level, we know that this advice can only make the unbearable temporarily acceptable. Most of come home and put ourselves in another world through mindless television, the Internet, or drink. Coping is a necessary part of late capitalist life and is – for better or for worse – fully worked into the market. Facebook memes, television series that allow vicarious living, iPad games, and cruises to the Caribbean exist for those lucky enough to live within the gated communities of the industrial West.


Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is set in such a world. Dick sets much of the story in the settlement “Chicken Pox Prospects” on Mars. Not insignificantly, it is much like any other suburban community. They embrace revival religions, engage in extramarital affairs to pass the time, and struggle to make a living in a barren, sterile wasteland. Frederick Jackson Turner is turned on its head. Rather than a crucible of democracy, the frontier in the universe of Philip K. Dick is merely an extension of the most decadent aspects of post-war American life. Like the American West, what was once the hope of a new life, a revival of democratic values and autonomy, became a brutalized landscape of broken souls.
Enter the coping mechanism. The one thing that can make life livable. Can-D is a drug that allows the user to experience, often collectively if taken with others, another world. Corporations sell “layouts”, which are essentially doll-houses, into which people are transported as they use the drug, which they ingest by chewing. In this alternative reality they can have affairs, commit acts of violence, gender-bend, or live out the life of their dreams. Limited by layouts and the length that the drug effects last, the experience provides just enough escape to make life livable on the brutal, pathetic landscape of the Martian frontier.

We all chew Can-D. We do it when we engage in our temporary escapes, when we commit the half-revolution of adultery, when we crash on the couch and turn on the television, or when we pretend to like our co-workers at happy hour. Without a third place (the place that is not work or the home), without real community or lasting ties with our neighbors, we make do with these little escapes. They give us just enough to manage to get up to work.

In The Three Stigmata, for some Can-D is not enough. Anne Hawthorne is one of the Martian denizens who seeks more than a temporary escape. She finds it in neo-Christianity. It “promises” eternal life and a permanent escape from the horrible existence on Mars, but only after death. Perhaps it offers some much needed community as well, although Anne is quite isolated in her believes, surrounded by users of Can-D. It is into this desire for an eternal escape that Chew-Z enters the market. The long lost Palmer Eldritch returns from Proxima with some lichens that have a very different effect on the user. “Because however wonderful being Perky Pat and Walt is for a while, eventually they’re forced to return to their hovels. Do you know how that feels Leo? Try it sometime; wake up in a hovel on Ganymede after you you’ve been freed for twenty, thirty minutes. It’s an experience you’ll never forget. And there’s something else–and you know what it is, too. When the little period of escape is over and the colonist returns. . . . he is not fit to resume a normal, daily life. He’s demoralized. But if instead of Can-D he’s chewed [Chew-Z]”

Chew-Z provides an eternal experience, even though no time is passed in real life. It is not a crude simulacra of existing reality, as experienced by users of “layouts” and Can-D. It is a truly religious experience. But also like religion, the experience is infected with a supernatural power and the mental experiences are controlled by that outside power – in this case manifestations of Palmer Eldritch.

With Can-D and Chew-Z we are presenting with two methods of coping with the banality of late capitalism. The one seeks escape in the religious realm, the other in the aesthetic. Both service the needs of the ruling class. Both are explicitly sold to the people as a means of social control. Among the competitors, Palmer Eldritch and Leo Bulero, the manufacturer of Perky Pat layouts, some honesty about this is revealed. They debate which is better at that function of social control and sustaining the working capacities of demoralized settlers. Most of the settlers are in on the truth as well. They know as well as the manufacturers that these drugs are the only thing keeping their minds together. The technocrats created a world of shit, but thankfully they also created the solution – temporary escape into immediate pleasure and fantasy, or the promise of eternal life.

From the original Perky Pat story

From the original Perky Pat story

15 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (1964): Work, Leisure, and Coping

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. Yes,but eternal life comes at a price here,that means that everybody’s soul belongs to Palmer Eldritch.Is that freedom,a life better than the dull,everyday existence?

    The book is unique,in being one in which the reader knows what is going to happen in the future,without it being in the plot of the written piece.It is prophesied that Leo Bulero will one day kill Palmer Eldritch and release them from the curse laid apon them because of the drug.This means that a happy ending is forecast without it being the end of the novel,that ends on such a sober,sour note.

    Of course Eldritch,who was a man,has foreseen his death,and has already laid plans to escape from it.He has returned possessed by God or an avatar of him,so can’t be destroyed,but in this case,one of an evil aspect.The battle is still one of good verses evil though,even if ambiguous.

    Bulero,a buisness man,although scheming and capitalistic,is essentially good at heart,and has undergone cosmetic evolution to enhance his mental capabilities.So with his humanity and genetically altered intellect,he is the obvious choice I suppose for Mankind’s saviour from a kind of purgatory.

    In seeking a permanent escape from the dreary life of the hovels,they have descended into one of relentless if ephemeral nightmare,that is far worst than their former daily existence.It is a battle to keep their souls and humanity being swallowed up by the monotheistic Eldritch.

    In order to establish new frontiers then,people must be prepared to sacrifice their personal freedom,to establish progress.If this is true then,Dick never did it better than here,and it also seems that they should be prepared to accept their lot,and be content with the commodities that are supposed to make life bearable,rather than plunge into something beyond their understanding,that could cause greater discontent.

    If your definition of politics is a broad one that covers striving for new ideals,discovery,and pseudo religious meaning,then TTSOPE is a paradigm of political change through the experience of metaphysical transcendence.

    • Well, that may be the case, but that is not the choice presented to users. I am always interested in the perspective from below. Why do the people on Mars choose this or that survival strategy (for that is what Chew-Z and Can-D are). It may be that the spiritual, religious response is both costly in selling your autonomy yet still provides escape.

      The solution not offered up in the novel is, but hinted at in his other works, is that we should revive the frontier spirit, make life on Mars livable, liberate working people from the oppression of banality. If I were to teach a course, I would pair this novel with Galactic Pot-Healer for this purpose.

      Interestingly, my favorite Dick novel, GPH, is not in this series because I lost my copy and could not get one at the library at the time. It is prominent in my manuscript.

  3. “Galactic Pot-healer” isn’t so highly rated as his other novels,but is among is best stuff.I suppose it’s too flippant in tone and outlook too have been taken and regarded as seriously as say,”The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,but it’s themes are just as concrete.

    Interestingly,Dick himself didn’t hold it in much esteem,probably because he wrote it specifically for Berkley paperbacks,but was put-out in hardback soon afterwards by Doubleday,which had published the above novel and others of his great works.

    I suppose your views are right,but Mars in Dick’s books,like the real one,is rather a sterile wasteland that the government in his books finds convenient for dumping unwanted and undesirable people.It reminds me of old Australia,where they sent convicts,who had to struggle to make a life in a barren land.

    • Yes, well, that is my point on the frontier narrative. I do not know how much of his early stuff you read, but there you find a frontier more akin to Frederick Jackson Turner with the frontier as a space of revival (you did read TOOJ, but it is the same in Jones, Futurity, and many stories). I cannot prove if Dick read Turner, but Turner was in the cultural DNA of mid-century SF anyway.

      Around 1965 he shifted to presenting the frontier like the dumping ground for the unwanted. Take a look at A Crack in Space for a transitional piece. There the “human kipple” is on Earth in cryo, and a frontier is seen as the salvation of humanity.
      How we get from that to Martian Time Slip and Three Stigmata is not entirely clear, but I suspect he was coming to terms with the failure of the Californian frontier.

      Thanks again for all your comments.

  4. Glad you like them.

    I’ve read all Dick’s sf novels but for “Dr Futurity”,and all of his short fiction.

    In David Pringle’s” The One Hundred best Science Fiction Novels”,he says of “Martian Time-Slip”,that the dream of space travel has failed to transform the human condition,and I think this is true of the dreary existence described in the book.In it,political greed,rather than benefiting the colonists,is behind the scheme to build vast apartment blocks to house undesirables like Manfred Steiner,who of course can see the future,and knowing his “fate”,later seeks to escape through the agency of divine transcendence.Unfortunetly it seems,they have also decided to build on sacred ground of the Bleekmen,and seems to be their,and later Arnie Knott’s,nemesis.

    I suppose it could be seen as comparable to the old dream of once settling California,which unfortunetly turned sour when it was transformed into vast cities and suburbs with housing tracks and holiday resorts for the rich,and Dick must have had this in mind when he wrote MTS in 1962.

    • So I have been thinking of a re-read blog. Maybe one post per short story, and chapter by chapter analysis (or more practically 4-5 posts on each novel).

      What I have here is really just scratching the surface.

      • Like Robert Heinlein,he was plotting it seems a future history,but unlike him,was creating a Mars as a new frontier analogous with colonial history and the process of repeating it.This was a theme motif connecting his battery of novels.

        Incidentally,it seems that the first American colonists hoping to find the “promised land”,have through their early years of hardship to have made the USA the great country it is…..or is it ? I think Dick would have the most sober and sanguine answers,and probably wrote of it in his books.

  5. Have you read Michael Moorcock’s piece on Philip K. Dick and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” in the British magazine,”Vector” for April 1966? It’s a better article I think than the famous one later the same year on him by John Brunner in “New Worlds”,that was supposed to have brought some early critical recognition to a then almost unknown author.

    While Brunner wrote an excellent critique about his themes and general concerns,Moorcock’s was better I thought in outlining the methods in which he used to construct his novels and why in the way he brought them to life,he stood above his major contemporaries such as Ballard,Aldiss and Vonnegut.It was infused with much of the political thought within an ontological framework I thought,that you write about.

    By the way,did you read and like my comment on “The Simulacra” page? I thought it was the most interesting one I sent,although I say so myself.

  6. Sorry…..very good idea….did you like the article?

    Tell you what,I found this on PKD Fans when looking for any reviews by Brunner that he wrote after his acclaimed polemic on Dick’s then neglected stuff.This was written before other Dick novels such as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,”Ubik”,”Galactic Pot-Healer” and “A Maze of Death” were published.

    I can’t find any reviews of those novels by him,but there must be somewhere.Similarly,I can’t find any early reviews by Brian Aldiss,or an early appreciative essay by him.The earliest I know of by him is the piece he wrote for his sf history, “Billion Year Spree”,what became the “first draft” of his “Trilllion Year Spree”.

    The Philip K. Dick Fan Site,contains reviews from sf magazines,including “New Worlds”,where there is a prehaps what could have been a damaging one by John M.Harrison,but none by Brunner or Aldiss.

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