One of Philip K. Dick's darker and more disturbing SF novels; his last of 1964, during which he churned out five books under the twin influences of amphetamines and economic pressure. Hugely expanded from his short story classic The Days of Perky Pat, it mostly concerns the reality-destroying hallucinogen Chew-Z, a derivative of an extraterrestrial lichen, brought back by eponymous antagonist Eldritch from the Proxima Centauri star system.

As was his habit during this period, PKD throws several different ideas into the novel - protagonist Leo Bulero, a 'bubblehead', having the expanded cerebellum and chitinous skull-rind of one who's undergone many hours (equivalent to thousands of years) of 'evolution therapy', is the proprietor of P.P. Layouts, a company which sells miniaturized ('minned') versions of Earthside luxury items to Martian colonists to be used when they chew the slightly tamer hallucinogen Can-D (covertly supplied by Bulero's company) in order to create a shared consensual subreality - translation: an amusement to some, a religion to others - in their dollhouse-like Perky Pat layouts, where minned items serve as props.

Bulero and his chief 'Pre-Fash consultant' Barney Mayerson - a corporate psychic who determines in advance which will be the most popular items for minning - engage in their different ways with adversary Palmer Eldritch and his rival product, Chew-Z. Things are complicated by Mayerson's emotional entanglements with his ex-wife (a potter, for whom evolution therapy turns out to be a bad move) his fellow pre-cognitive assistant, and, later on, a more traditional religionist out to convert the Martian colonists to the transubstantiation doctrine of the Neo-American Christian Church.

The plot develops at a furious (and disorienting) pace. The characterization is solid, and the utter desolation of life as a Martian colonist ("welcome to our hovel, Chicken Pox Prospects") is conveyed with sardonic humour and a stupendous bleakness. But the feature of the work which has undoubtedly attracted the most attention, not to say controversy, is PKD's extremely subtle (and theologically literate) blending of religion (and a familiar character or two from an actual religion) and hallucinogenic drugs. The book was translated into German, in 1971, under the title 'LSD Astronauten', and many have suspected that LSD experiences went into its creation, but PKD himself has consistently denied this, claiming to have not indulged in any psychedelics until a later date. In Britain, the author was accused of blasphemy in some reviews.

Many readers have found it a uniquely disturbing or profound work, though PKD himself has come close to disowning it, for variously stated reasons (saying at one time: "I am afraid of that book; it deals with absolute evil"). My guess is that it's the emotional associations with the period of its creation that prompted this. PKD writes elsewhere:

Isolation generated the novel and yearning generated the story; in the novel a mixture of the fear of being abandoned and the fantasy of the beautiful woman who waits for you - somewhere, but God only knows where; I have still to figure it out. But if you are sitting alone day after day at your typewriter, turning out one story after another and having no one to talk to, no one to be with, and yet pro forma having a wife and four daughters from whose house you have been expelled, banished to a little single-walled shack that is so cold in winter that, literally, the ink would freeze in my typewriter ribbon, well, you are going to write about iron slot-eyed faces and warm young women...
The novel is prefaced with a tiny memo:
I mean, after all; you have to consider we're only made out of dust. That's admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn't forget that. But even considering, I mean it's a sort of bad beginning, we're not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we're faced with we can make it. You get me?

From an interoffice audio-memo cir-
culated to Pre-Fash level consultants
at Perky Pat Layouts, Inc., dictated by
Leo Bulero immediately on his return
from Mars.

The author later wrote of this memo: "This little section appears ahead of the text of the novel. It is the novel, actually, this paragraph; the rest is a sort of post mortem, or rather, a flashback in which all that came to produce the one-paragraph book is presented. Seventy-five thousand words, which I labored over many months, merely explains, is merely there to provide background to the one small statement in the book that matters. (It is, by the way, missing from the German edition.)"

I think it's fair to say that if you venture into the seventy-five thousand word exegesis of that little memo, you're risking undergoing an alteration of some of your basic notions about reality, from which it may be impossible to fully return.


Info and PKD quotes from:

http://www.philipkdick.com/pkdweb/THE%203%20STIGMATA.htm

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