Recently I finished reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a book by Philip K. Dick. It is the third work by Dick that I have read thus far, the first two being A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. As with the other two books “The Three Stigmata…” has an overarching theme of alienation. In the story the earth has become environmentally unaccommodating to human existence, making it virtually fatal to be outside in the daytime without protection; a sort of runaway global warming scenario. This is alienation between human beings and their environment. The United Nations in the story has instituted a draft which sends selected citizens off to the various colonies in the Solar system, Mars being the main one. Colony life is barren and unproductive. The colonists are ostensibly there to grow crops and build a new civilization but regardless of how much effort put in there is little return. The equipment breaks down and rusts away and the native life forms are hostile pests or outright threats, a further environmental alienation. To combat this hopeless and frivolous situation most colonists have taken to consuming an illegal narcotic known as Can-D. Can-D causes a shared dissociative state between users in which they inhabit the lives of fictional characters Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt (Perky Pat and Walt are ideal representations, models in a magazine, Barbie and Ken.) which is all represented by a dollhouse like layout filled with miniature simulacra of everyday objects, quite often luxury goods which are well beyond the means of the colonists to ever obtain.
On earth the corporation behind the Perky Pat layouts purchases rights to products which are then mass produced into a miniaturized version for use in the layouts. The chief executive of this company and other members of the wealthy rungs of society have taken to the new trend of evolutionary therapy whereupon the subject is supposedly fast-forwarded through the evolutionary process and becomes an advanced human with greater capacities and faculties. This brings to mind the contemporary trends of today where plastic surgery and body modifications are becoming more popular and widespread. Ostensibly it is about self improvement and individual expression but ultimately there is a kernel of dissatisfaction behind it.
The Perky Pat layouts combined with Can-D represent the consumerist tendency of society. Ultimately it is a feeling of dissatisfaction with our surroundings which encourages us to shop and acquire new things on a regular basis. We are continuously bombarded with new and newer consumer products which absorb our attention but in the background our society is degrading around us. Our interpersonal relations decaying just like the physical infrastructure of our society; crumbling roads and bridges, buildings losing pieces of their facade and landing onto sidewalks and the erosion of social services. It is the same situation as the colonists on Mars who pursue a distraction from their dismal unsatisfactory lives. We then realize that they are not colonizers but the colonized. The dissatisfaction which leads to consumption and fantasy is an exterior influence which becomes manifest in the character of Palmer Eldritch who arrives in the Sol system prepared to market a new and improved narcotic which offers more and requires less on the part of the consumer; known as Chew-Z. Palmer emits a cheap divinity about himself but his nature is left a mystery. In my view he is just a miserable drug dealer, a salesman, a pimp who thrives off your voluntary enslavement.
I see a parallel between the high of Can-D with social media. In both the subject experiences a simulated reality altered to our tastes. You choose the imagery and the associations that you want on Facebook or other such medium just as a character in the book would choose specific representations to manipulate during the drug induced state wherein he or she inhabits Perky Pat or Walt in the layout. This is just what we do on social media, we inhabit a highly tailored version of ourselves, offering only the select features and sometimes fictions we choose and we interact with others involved in the same digital pageantry. In the book there is considerable debate between those who believe what happens in the Can-D induced state is actually real and those who think its just a hallucination and this debate mirrors the one today which questions whether experiences and interactions on social media are truly genuine (though their side effects are certainly real) or valuable. Palmer Eldritch offers a new kind of experience, one which doesn’t rely on a layout but instead a pure experience without mediation which feels as real as real can be. The problem however, as the characters in the book realize, is the omnipresent spectre of Eldritch himself, an authoritative ghost who has just as much influence as the subject in the limbo like reality which Chew-Z causes. With my analogy in mind, this makes me think about the future of social media. As it becomes more ubiquitous and immersive who will have the definitive influence, the individual or will it be the corporations and governments whose presence and roll in social media grows with each passing day?
Overall, I liked the book quite a lot. I like a novel which tells two stories at once. The one concerning the actions and thoughts of the characters and the dialectical sequence of ideas.