Sunday, September 22, 2013

Consideration of Works Past: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

(Picture from here.)

I am now and have always been your friend-- oops. Wait. Got my wires crossed.

I am now and have always been a Phillip K. Dick fan.

I've pretty much read most of what he's written-- there may be a couple of novels I haven't managed to connect with and perhaps a few stories in the compleat works I haven't gotten to. He had a pretty sizable body of work.

I think of PKD work the same way I think of zen koans and parables. The parables I've read go something like this. The story: goes fairly normally-- a pilgrim looking for an answer to a question or some such-- until a particular point where the narrative bends such that the reader must flounder. It's analogous to the story systematically building the reader a beach and inviting him on a walk only to discover it's quicksand. The intent of the work is to challenge the reader into a new path.

A good example of this sort of thing is Dick's The Man Who Japed. Japed is the story of a Calvinist-inspired world following an apocalypse. A mediocre writer might do a "One man against the world" sort of thing. But this denies that there is actual value in strict morality. Dick created a character who is a creative artist, a misfit in the society who is nonetheless very successful, and believes strongly in a strict morality. He does bring the society to task-- sort of. And he does it with a sense of humor. Not war but laughter.

See? Zen koan.

Eldritch is a much more serious work than Japed. Like all Dick novels it starts with a businessman. In this case, a man with precognition employed by a company that uses his ability to detect what products will be in fashion and what products will remain unsold. This is at the very heart of a Dick novel-- they always start with something we would call mundane. In Doctor Bloodmoney it's a TV salesman. In Japed it's a man who is running a media production house. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep it's breakfast between a husband and wife. The husband is a cop. Only later do you discover he's a bounty hunter who's job it is to destroy escaped androids.

The book largely concerns itself with Barney Mayerson-- the precog mentioned above-- and his boss, Leo Bulero. Bulero has been force-evolved to have a higher brain function. Their company produces Perky Pat layouts: a miniature model system that is the focal point for users of an illegal drug, Can-D. Users of Can-D are able to unite in the form of characters on the layout. Can-D is illegal on earth but freely available on the colony planets of Mars and Venus. In point of fact, Mars and Venus are so hostile that colonists are psychologically unable to cope with living there without Can-D.

Into this volatile situation comes Palmer Eldritch, a charismatic businessman who had gone to Proxima Centauri years before and has now returned. Returned with Chew-Z, a competitor drug to Can-D.

Now, a mediocre writer might turn this into a drug war. Or make some obvious moral distinction. But taking drugs is not a moral problem in this book. Why you take them, or why they're sold to you and what are the moral and psychological consequences of those decisions is that book's target. Is Can-D a religious experience? Is Chew-Z? If they are, what is the meaning of two different and competing religious experiences? What is the nature of reality but the perception and if these drugs change perception (which they profoundly do) is that not any less real than the sober experience? What is the difference between a religious experience mediated by a drug and one mediated by the church? Is there a difference?

Dick doesn't just tell you one way or the other. His characters wrestle with these questions. Some wrestle weakly. Others do a pile driver on them. There is sin and redemption in this novel and the nature of what constitutes a sin and what constitutes a redemption.

I first ran into this novel (and subsequent Dick) in Alabama in the late sixties. When I first picked it up I suddenly realized that up to that point I had been reading SF with children in the starring role. Think about it. Most SF and fantasy arcs are coming of age stories. One man against the world. Lost prince stories. Chosen ones. Fulfilling of prophecies. Fights against the father. These are all adolescent boy stories-- regardless of the gender of the main character.

That's not to say you can't make a brilliant work out of a Bildungsroman-- Hell, that's half of mythology. But it is at the end a story about a boy becoming a man. Which means for a good portion of the story the protagonist is a child with childish things.

Every character in a Dick novel is an adult. Sometimes even the kids. By this I mean they are already fully formed members of society and are no longer dealing with the process of becoming members of society but are now dealing with the consequences and obligations of being members of that society.

Which is why I mentioned Japed in the beginning.

Eldritch is no different from any other Dick novel in this respect. Nor is it all that different dealing with the subject matter so dear to Dick's heart: the nature of reality, experience and religion. But the deftness and brilliance of the vision!

Dick takes things apart and lets you see what's inside. Sometimes he uses a scalpel. Sometimes an axe. But these are entrails he's examining. It's not for the squeamish.

I was worried when I read it. Eldritch had a big impact on me. Certainly on my writing. Dick also looks at human institutions with the full understanding they (and we) are absurd, with great affection for them (and us) and a little regret we can't do better. That point of view has stuck with me ever since.

I was happy to find that my worries were groundless. It's a sixties novel and that means some internal editing as it's being read. But it stands up as well as it ever did.

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