Recently, there was a funny image spread around the internet. It depicts a sign that says “Not yourself? Alert the authorities.” The caption, “- A novel by Philip K. Dick”.
As comical as the post is, it is so funny due to the reality of the statement. Philip K. Dick’s body of work heavily explores themes of unreality, drug-induced altered consciousnesses, stifled creativity under authoritarian regimes, and other topics now deemed hallmarks of dystopian fiction. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch touches upon many of the themes that Dick is known for, occupied with drugs, the connection between the mind and the body, Solar System-spanning governments, and discontent.
Stigmata is also quite occupied with pleasure, though not necessarily sex. The first female character introduced in the novel is described simply as “quite pretty”, the first thing Barney notices of her, he thinks similarly of his ex-wife, Emily. Women are the ultimate servicers in Palmer Eldritch, as seen through “Perky Pat”, the virtual character which connects users of Can-D to drug-stimulated layouts. However, while it might feel like a natural avenue for the novel to have Can-D users have sexual experiences within these layouts, the book does not go there, choosing rather to let readers mull those possibilities over themselves. “Instead of having a Perky Pat layout,” Barney thinks to himself when he considers himself on Mars, “I’ll have an Emily layout. And spend time, in fantasy, back with [Emily].” This brings not only a questionable blurring of consent, but also perfectly shows how Can-D has such an iron grip on society: they have monetized pleasure.
Of all the novels discussed in this project, this was probably the hardest to approach with the angle of “Gender and Sexuality”. It certainly has a lot to say about unreality, identity, and I understand why Philip K. Dick is a staple of new wave science fiction, but I hesitate to read into this book a message that is not there. I do think, however, that after reading more of PKD, I would be able to revisit Palmer Eldritch with a more critical eye. For, honestly, as I read it, I felt a bit like a child going to the zoo for the first time. It is not that PKD and his work are impenetrable, for there clearly is a lot of scholarship out there regarding him. I ask, dear readers, that this time you refer to them, and not to me!