The appeal of science fiction, at least to many of us, is the sense of wonder one gets from really stellar examples of the genre. After at least a century of remarkable stories, the bar is set pretty high for those authors that seek to thrill readers with profound stories. Few authors can do this well. Fortunately, Philip K. Dick can. I have come to realize that the K in PKD stands for "Kick the reader's ass".
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch begins in the familiar ecological and moral dystopia of the future Earth that PKD seems to enjoy writing about. We are introduced to a Young Upwardly Mobile New Yorker named Barney Mayerson, a psychic employed as a marketer for Perky Pat Layouts. Perky Pat is a stand-in for Barbie dolls and in this world, P. P. Layouts is Earth's largest and most ruthless business. Perky Pat dolls and accessories are sold to those unlucky souls who have been forcibly expatriated from Earth in an effort to preserve humanity. This near-future Earth is suffering from a lethal level of global warming. The average daily temperature is around 180 degress Fahrenheit. Because the living conditions on the colonies is so harsh and spartan, most colonists (or "hovelists" as they are called) turn to the escape of the illegal "translating" drug Can-D. Through Can-D, users live the fantasy lives of Perky Pat and her beau Walt. This fantasy is enabled through imbibing the drug along with staring at Perky Pat miniatures. The trip is a shared experience, so a cult developes round the drug.
Life is good for old Mayerson. Aside from most people mispronouncing his name, his got a good job, the ear of P. P. Layout's chief executive Leo Bulero and a hot little tomato named Roni Fugate to keep his bed warm. Of course Barney has had to make some sacrifices along the way, like dumping his near-angelic wife, Emily, for the sake of his career. Unfortunately, the karma wheel is always a-spinnin' and payback is, as they say, a bitch.
Meanwhile, mysterious industrialist Palmer Eldritch has returned to the Sol system after a ten year journey to the alien and outré Proxima system. Crashing on Pluto, Eldritch is quickly removed to a hospital. Perhaps too quickly. Was the human industrialist replaced by some weird alien during his trip? And what about that strange lichen he's brought back with him? Can it really displace the Can-D monopoly of P. P. Layouts?
Three Stigmata is the grand story of the Fall and Redemption. PKD's ambitious attempt to retell the Christian story of the crucifixation is compelling and subtle until the end. It succeeds as a work of science fiction, although theologically it falls short. That failure should not deter anyone from reading this wonderful gem of a book.