Start a Garden: A Review of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

As I approach the publication of my first novel, I’m feeling like a fraud (it’s my default setting). There is so much that I haven’t read. I’ve read virtually no science fiction or speculative fiction in general, and I’m about to publish a book with robot fights. So I decided to use the old library card and finally read some science fiction.


Here is a morsel of what I found in Phillip K. Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.


The earth is really hot.


Mars is not so pleasant itself.


The more evolved you are, the more angsty you are.


Precogs make dumb decisions too.


Structurally, Three Stigmata is really two books, two worlds, both filled with sex, escape, harsh elements, neither with satisfaction, love, or sacrifice. Neither world features round characters, but even the tired sci/fi tropes and stereotypes (including some unfortunate sexist and potentially racist portrayals) help ask Dick’s worthwhile questions:


1-How do we find meaning as an advanced species?

2-What good is reality in a world of pleasurable simulacra?


Without giving away too much, I will say that Dick’s potential answers begin when Leo Bulero (angsty hedonist precog refugee) meets the lovely Anne Hawthorne (neo-Christian proselytizer): a future Romeo and Juliet in the making…well, not really, but that book needs to happen.


Not only does Anne Hawthorne share the name of one of the great Puritan writers (who changed his name from that infamous Puritan, Hathorne), she shares one of her Christian ancestor’s greatest traits–forgotten by some fundamentalist ancestors and by the general public–a love for the world, for the land:


No wonder she hated it on Mars; historically her people undoubtedly had loved the authentic ground of Terra, the smell and actual texture, and above all the memory it contained, the remnants in transmuted form…Well, she could start a garden here…


This isn’t the fundamentalist Christianity that decries the earth and waits for it to burn. This is a neo-Christian whose ancestors loved the world deeply. Just as Anne loved the earth, so Bulero must learn to love Mars, which he kind of does:


But I’m not returning to Earth; either I make it here or not at will be here on this miserable planet, this ‘promised land’… Tomorrow morning, he decided, I’ll begin clearing away the sand of fifty thousand centuries for my first vegetable garden. That’s the initial step.


Ultimately, Dick achieves what Science Fiction writers ought to by creating a legitimate tension between humanity and a land made strange by technology. He also creates a plan of escape. What should we do when the earth is boiling in anger? When simulacra trump reality? When escape is simple and so pleasurable? When sex is detached, impersonal, and filled with remorse?


Well, we could start a garden here.



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