#48 – A Canticle for Leibowitz Review – Walter M. Miller

Summary | Review | Buy
Science Fiction has always had a tenuous relationship with religion and religious themes in general. Most Sci-Fi books are set in technologically advanced societies and civilizations that have outgrown the need for religion or at least seen it take a back seat to the “Church of Science.” Those that do feature some sort of religious element, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Hyperion, often present it as either a fraud or an agent of repression and conquest. While speculative fiction often deals with issues of spirituality and the potential for human transcendence, it usually comes in the form of contact with a superior alien intelligence or power (Γ  la 2001 or Childhood’s End) rather than the work of a formal religious order such as the Catholic Church. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is the rare exception to this rule. In Miller’s masterpiece, the Church is the preserver of knowledge, technology and learning rather than the suppressor of it. In a world that has grown violently suspicious of anything even resembling technology or intellectualism, the members of the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz” are the ones struggling to preserve the knowledge of mankind amidst widespread cultural regression.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Summary: Beginning six centuries after our current civilization is decimated by a nuclear war (referred to as the “Flame Deluge”), the book is told in three parts, each separated by about 600 years. In the first section (“Fiat Homo” – Let There Be Man) we learn of the “Simplification,” a violent backlash against the culture of advanced technology that brought about the nuclear war. During the years immediately following the war, mobs of angry survivors burn books and kill anyone who can read or possesses any practical knowledge. In order to preserve the last remnants of human knowledge and learning, an electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz founds a monastic order in the Southwest United States that aims to hide, smuggle and reproduce these forbidden texts so that they can be used when mankind is ready to accept them again. The preservation of the sacred memorabilia and writings is continued by the order long after Leibowitz is martyred, beatified and eventually sainted. In the 26th century, a monk named Brother Francis Gerard stumbles across new relics in the desert which are rumored to be from Leibowitz himself. The relics, including a withered shopping list and the blueprints for mechanical and electrical devices, are used to help make the case for Sainthood for Leibowitz.

The section section (“Fiat Lux” – Let There Be Light) continues 600 years into the future in which the world is slowly starting to come out of the dark ages and into a Renaissance of learning and technological discovery. The Albertian Monks of the order of Saint Leibowitz are still at the center of the story, having used the preserved memorabilia and relics to start developing simple electrical devices and other basic technologies. While the Monks try to decipher and analyze the remaining artifacts, we also learn about the rise of civilized city-states such as Laredo, Texarkana and Denver and the struggle for power and security in the newly burgeoning world. The third section (“Fiat Voluntas Tua” – Let Thy Will Be Done) moves ahead another 600 years to a world in which mankind is even more technologically advanced than our own – with nuclear energy, weapons of destruction, and even starships and colonies among the outer planets. A conflict has been brewing between the two world superpowers and is in danger of turning into a full scale nuclear conflict. In preparation for this eventuality, the Church begins to make contingency plans for the evacuation of their members and the holy memorabilia and information that they still protect. The crumbling of their world around them as they escape from the dying planet is a sadly fitting coda to the story of civilization and the cyclical nature of human technological advancement and regression.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Review: The idea that human civilization can be seen in terms of cycles of enlightened progression and catastrophic regression is a powerful theme in this book. Scholars more observant that I am have noted that the three parts of the novel also correspond roughly to the three stages in the history of Western civilization – beginning with the Fall of Rome and concluding with our current age of technological wonders and dangerous scientific discoveries. The fact that Miller is able to weave these heady themes into a tale that is both intriguing and readable is a testament to his considerable skill as both a writer and a thinker. While it’s sad to think that this was the only novel that he published during his lifetime, it helps to know that at least it was one of the most cherished and widely studied books in all of Science Fiction. No matter what your views are regarding the Church or the role of religion in general, you’re sure to find something to fascinate you and make you think in this book. As we as a civilization try to learn from our previous mistakes in the hopes of breaking the ongoing cycle of progress and self-destruction, it helps to have reminders like this of where we are and how the choices we make today will effect the future. The great part about Science Fiction, in my mind, is how it can allow us to learn from the future as well as the past – especially since the two are so often intertwined.

Buy A Canticle for Leibowitz:

Paperback
Sequel
August 20, 2010

#29 – The Man in the High Castle Review – Philip K Dick

Paperback Best of

Summary | Review | Buy
The Man in the High Castle is probably one of the most famous examples of “Alternate History” in all of literature. Philip K. Dick’s vision of a world in which the Axis powers (Japan and Germany) won the second World War is a bone-chilling exploration of the notion of truth, authenticity and the unreliable nature of reality. In showing us a world that could-have-been, Dick is able to explore (in typically mind-bending Philip K. Dick fashion) the idea of false realities and the value we place on objects, people and events that we think of as being “True”. And while the idea that our reality may not be the real (or only) reality is a common theme among Dick’s novels, Castle provides the reader with a much more tangible narrative structure and immersive story than some of his other books, allowing him to weave in these deep philosophical themes and ideas in a way that is subtle yet deeply powerful. Although I’ve had trouble with some of Dick’s late-period novels, this one really succeeds on multiple levels: as a story of intrigue and espionage between two superpowers, as a tale of resistance and rebellion against tyranny and oppression, and as a meditation on how we understand history through the prism of our own sense of reality.

The Man in the High Castle Summary: The book takes place in an America that is divided amongst the world’s two remaining superpowers – with German controlling most of the Eastern portion of the country and Japan controlling the West coast (with the central Rocky Mountain region serving as a buffer zone between the two nations). Since winning the war and dividing up most of the territories of the world, the two victors have since become engaged in their own “Cold War,” with each side suspicious of the others intentions and engaged in espionage in order to keep them from gaining too much power. There is a an extremely unsettling and horrific passage in the book that describes the atrocities that the Nazis had unleashed upon the population of Africa as part of their “Final Solution.”

The human drama takes places mostly in Japanese occupied San Francisco, following Frank Frink as a man who deals in pre-war Americana reproductions while dealing with life under his new Imperial rulers. Frink’s company then sells those fake items to a man named Robert Childan who sells them to collectors and businessmen as if they are real. The notion of whether or not these “Reproductions” of artifacts are authentic or not (and what the notion of authenticity even implies) is one of the ways in which Dick is able to get us to start thinking about the confusing truths that surround the things we think of as containing “History.

Now here is where the story gets really twisted. Throughout the first part of the book there are references to a subversive novel that was written by a reclusive writer who is supposedly holed up in a castle (hence the title) somewhere in Colorado. The novel in question is called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and tells of an alternate history (within the context of the novel) in which the Allies actually won the war. In effect, the book is an alternate reality within an alternate reality, describing a version of history much like our own (although not exactly the same). The German’s think that the book and the ideas it represents are dangerous, and send an operative to assassinate the writer (hence the reason for living in solitude in a castle).

The Man in the High Castle Review: I’ll be honest. It is more than a little disturbing to be presented with a world that shows us the possibility of what could have unfolded had the circumstances been different. But as Dick turns the tables on us and makes us confront the horror of living in a world occupied and ruled by our enemies, he is also showing us that the tenuous nature of reality gives us the ability to create our own history and that the simple fact of imagining a reality that is different from our own can be considered a treasonous act. In these days of state controlled censorship and an apathetic media that just broadcasts the “Official” story (I’m talking about our world now), this idea is particularly relevant. Who controls history? Who is responsible for writing down the truth? What is the truth of our reality anyway? It is these questions that form the heart of The Man in the High Castle and make it such an important book and one worth reading.

Buy The Man in the High Castle:

August 31, 2010

#24 – Snow Crash Review – Neal Stephenson

Summary | Review | Buy
Neal Stephensen’sSnow Crash is the second “Cyber-Punk” novel on this list (the first being Neuromancer) and, in my opinion, the more enjoyable of the two. While both novels take place in a near-future dystopia of high crime and industrial sprawl in which humans are able to interface directly with a world wide data network, Snow Crash presents us with a more sympathetic main character and a more believable and imaginable future landscape – not just in the physical reality of the novel but in the virtual-reality universe that the characters frequently inhabit. For me as a reader, being able to visualize the setting that the action is taking place in is paramount, and Stephensen does a great job of showing you what the characters are experiencing, even when the landscape is unfamiliar and the concepts foreign. Maybe it’s my lack of technical knowledge or an unfamiliarity with the “Hacker” sub-culture, but Gibson’s universe was much more difficult for me to see in my mind’s eye than Snow Crash. And while I didn’t follow everything that happened, I ended up enjoying the fast-paced, darkly humorous nature of the book immensely.

Snow Crash Summary: The society of Snow Crash is no longer ruled by strong government powers, but is instead controlled by various syndicates, corporations and business franchises (such as Uncle Enzo’s CosaNostra Pizza Inc. and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong) who each control a separate enclave in the city of Los Angeles. While most citizens live in comparatively poor conditions (with crime, drugs and violence being widespread), some are able to escape their reality and become someone else by creating and maintaining avatars in what is known as the Metaverse – a virtual reality construction that users are able to interface with by means of personal terminals in the real world. Status and respect in the metaverse are judged primarily by the sophistication of the user’s avatar and the ability to access certain restricted parts of the virtual world.

The Hero of the story is the hilariously named Hiro Protagonist, a pizza driver for the Mob (and virtual Samurai warrior) who, along with a streetwise girl named Y.T. (Yours Truly, of course) begins to investigate the appearance of a drug (or virus) called Snow Crash that has been infecting members of the metaverse while at the same time also infecting the user’s minds in the real world. As they begin to unravel the mystery of the Snow Crash virus, they learn more about the virus’ relationship to ancient Sumerian mythology, neurolinguistics and computer programming – all while searching for the source of the virus in hopes of preventing its widespread use.

Snow Crash Review: While I don’t pretend to fully grasp all of the concepts that Stephensen brings up about computer programs and their intrinsic relationship to human language functions, I understood enough to get the overall gist of the conflict and its context within the larger events of the plot. And apart from the technical aspects of the novel, the notion that someone can become greater than their real world self in a virtual environment through their hacking skills is inherently fascinating and appealing. While Hiro is a mere pizza boy in the real world, in the Metaverse he is a warrior prince and expert swordsman. Who hasn’t wanted to live out a fantasy version of themselves in which their power isn’t limited by physical constrictions or rules? So whether you are a computer programming specialist, an expert in ancient languages or just someone who enjoys a good read, Snow Crash has something to get you hooked.

Buy Snow Crash:

Paperback
Kindle
September 7, 2010

#17 – Brave New World Review – Aldous Huxley

Summary | Review | Buy

While Brave New World is often compared to Orwell’s 1984 in that they both present a portrait of a disturbing future dystopia, the mechanisms in which their future societies impose control over the individual are actually in stark contrast to one another. Where Big Brother controls society through intimidation, fear and the violent suppression of individual freedoms, Huxley presents a world in which true social and mental conditioning have eliminated the need for strict government enforcement at all. Although Orwell’s future is more viscerally disturbing and repulsive, the society in Brave New World is just as frightening in its implications, with Huxley giving us a more subtle condemnation of the effects of population control and the social caste system.

Brave New World Summary: In London of 2540, the world’s population is kept at a stable 2 billion, resources are plentiful, there is near-universal employment, and global society is peaceful and stable. Babies aren’t born in the traditional sense, but are instead grown in test tubes and molded (through chemicals and sleep-hypnosis) to become a member of one of society’s five main castes. Since natural reproduction is non existent and sex is seen only as recreation, people are encouraged to be sexually promiscuous and open. In order to keep the economy stable, citizens are conditioned to be voracious consumers of products and materials. While individuality and solitude isn’t outlawed, it is looked down upon by society to the extent that those who value it are deemed “Unstable.” In place of religion, citizens are encouraged to take the Hallucinogenic drug Soma to combat any feelings of stress or anxiety. Actually, now that I think about, this doesn’t seem like such a bad way to live after all πŸ™‚

The conflict begins when the main character Bernard (who is a bit unstable himself) travels to a Reservation during a holiday in order to view a group of “Savages” -a primitive people who exist outside of society and who still live in the traditional manner. When Bernard brings one of the savages back to London, he quickly becomes a celebrity as the savage (John) is seen as different and unique. John quickly becomes disenchanted with the decadence of society and the values which conflict with his own and tries to escape civilization. John’s isolation and self-flagellation eventually cause even more interest in him by the citizens, leading to an encounter that has tragic consequences.

Brave New World Review: The true prescience of Huxley’s vision, I think, is that many of the customs and structures that he describes are logical extensions of things that can be found in modern day culture. From population control programs and test tube conception techniques to the use of drugs and material consumption as a salve for depression and discontent, the book accurately predicts some of the emerging social and societal trends of the last 50 years. And while Orwell’s vision warns us of the dangers of a totalitarian regime that forcibly limits our intellectual curiosity and freedoms, Huxley seems to instead be warning us of a future in which prosperity and imposed happiness have caused us to suppress our own individuality and search for meaning.

Buy Brave New World

Paperback
Kindle
September 15, 2010

#12 – Neuromancer Review – William Gibson

Summary | Quotes | Buy

NeuromancerΒ is another one of those novels that I didn’t appreciate fully the first time I read it. While I clearly remember the ideas and characters being fascinating, I had a hard time deciphering the dense technical language and computer slang that colored most of the dialogue. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not much of a computer hacker myself (just a lowly humanities loving English-major), but the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in the nebulous realm of “Cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson himself) made it difficult for me picture the action that was being described. But regardless of my inability to “break the code” of the novel, I still recommend it for anyone who likes their science fiction gritty, dystopic and seeped in the culture and conventions of computer hacking.

Released in 1984, Neuromancer is probably the most famous “Cyper-Punk” novel of all time. Gibson’s masterpiece features all of the conventions of the genre, including a marginalized computer hacker for a hero, a bleak future landscape of mega-corporations and crime infested slums, vast connected data networks that can interface directly with the human brain and the tone of a hard-boiled film noir. While it wasn’t the first to use these elements, it was the first to breakthrough and become a mainstream success, winning the “Triple Crown” of science fiction awards: The Nebula, the Hugo and the Philip K. Dick Awards.

Neuromancer Summary: The novel focuses on disgraced computer hacker Henry Dorsett Case who has been poisoned by his former employer and rendered unable to interface with the global computer network. In exchange for a cure for the poison (and the ability to work again), Case agrees to help a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage perform a particularly difficult hack. With the help of the beautifully lethal mercenary Molly Millions, Case sets out to uncover the mystery behind his new employer and the true nature of the work that he is being asked to do.

While the sub-genre of Cyber-Punk may not be my favorite, I can certainly appreciate a well told story with unfamiliar elements. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (#24 on this list) is another cyper-punk styled novel that I enjoyed immensely. And although it may not have resonated with me as much as some of the other novels on this list, I have to admit that Neuromancer is still one of the most thoroughly unique and ambitious books I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer Quotes: “A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and he’d still see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void….”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

Buy Neuromancer:

Paperback Kindle
September 21, 2010

#11 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Review – Philip K. Dick

Summary | Review | Buy

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Philip K. Dick’s masterful vision of a near future world in which bounty hunters are paid to “retire” rogue androids that have escaped and infiltrated human society. While most people know this as the book that inspired the classic Sci-Fi thriller Blade Runner, there are actually a number of significant differences between the movie version and the novel. And although they both share similar themes, such as what it means to be human, there are whole sub-plots and subjects in the book that are completely missing in the film. That’s not to say that one is better than the other. In my opinion they work well as companion pieces, and I recommend reading the book whether or not you have seen the movie.

Summary: The story takes place in San Francisco in a near-future Earth that has been made almost completely uninhabitable by radioactive fallout from World War Terminus. Most of Earth’s inhabitants have left to settle on the off-world colonies of Mars and beyond as a way to avoid the genetic degradation and damage that the nuclear fallout can inflict. Those that are left behind, including those who couldn’t pass the mental and genetic tests required to help humanity recover, are left to live in empty, decayed buildings and decaying cities. Due to the devastating impact of the radiation on the natural environment, living animals are extremely scarce – and owning a real one is a sign of prestige and social status. Those who can’t afford the high price of a real animal often resort to synthetic, mechanical copies in order to keep up appearances. Besides being a way to help protect species from extinction, the act of caring for these animals also forms the basis of the main religion among those left on Earth, Mercerism. Based on the trials and suffering of the mythical Wilbur Mercer, Mercerism is based on the collective empathy of the human race towards each other. Followers of Mercerism are literally connected through “Empathy Boxes” which connect their minds to each other in order to experience the suffering of Mercer. It is this ability to empathize (both with people and animals) that Dick sees as the defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job it is to track down Replicants, androids so sophisticated that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Although they are used primarily in the off-world colonies as slave labor, they occasionally break free of their programming and try to blend in with the rest of humanity. As the novel begins, Deckard is given the task of tracking down and “retiring” a group of rogue androids who have escaped from Mars. Because this latest generation of replicants are so sophisticated, Deckard must use what is known as the Voight-Kampff test in order to tell whether someone is human or not. Based on a series of emotionally (and empathically) targeted questions, the test measures minute changes in perspiration, eye movement and heart rate. Because androids lack an innate sense of empathy, their response times are not in line with a normal human’s, although the differences are often so subtle that they can only be detected, ironically, by a machine. As Deckard begins to track down and “retire” each of the escaped replicants, he begins to question the morality of his actions. Even though the people he is killing are actually machines, the fact that they act so much like humans causes him to start having feelings of empathy towards them – and in particular a replicant named Rachel Rosen, who he falls in love with.

Review: This book is a page-turner. Part hard boiled detective novel, part meditation on religion, reality and humanity. Dick has an uncanny ability to make even the most bizarre situations seem real and powerful. And although the film version is a first rate science fiction thriller with amazing art direction and mood, the book provides a much more meaningful and nuanced examination of what it means to be human and how we treat those things that we deem worthy of empathy.

Buy Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep:

Paperback Kindle Graphic Novel Blu-Ray Movie
September 22, 2010

#7 – Fahrenheit 451 Review – Ray Bradbury

Summary | Review | Quotes | Buy

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 shares a lot of similarities with Orwell’s 1984. Both take place in a dystopian future where intellectual freedom and free thought are suppressed. Both tell the story of a man who begins to question the basic cultural assumptions and rules that his society is built upon. And both show the consequences of rebellion in a society bent on maintaining censorship at any cost. And while Fahrenheit 451 may be slightly more optimistic when it comes to its belief that an individual can be set free from the collective prejudices of their society, it is no less an indictment of the anti-intellectual tendencies that can emerge when a society starts to value happiness and order over truth.

Fahrenheit 451 Summary: The novel takes place in a future in which reading has been outlawed by a population that values the pursuit of pleasure over knowledge. “Illegal” books are rounded up and burned by “Firemen” for the good of humanity (The title of the novel refers to the temperature at which book paper will burn). Our protagonist, Guy Montag, is a Fireman who begins to question the practice of book burning after an incident at the home of a woman whose books were going to be burned. After inadvertently reading a line in one of her books, he decides to steal the book. When the woman eventually allows herself to be burned alive along with all of her books, Guy begins to reconsider his belief that books have no value.

As the novel progresses, Guy starts to become more and more obsessed with collecting and memorizing books and begins to find kindred spirits who have been actively trying to preserve as many books as they can (often going so far as to memorize their contents before burning them to avoid detection). At the same time, Guy’s superiors at the Fire department begin to suspect his book hoarding tendencies and eventually force him to burn his entire house to the ground. All of this takes place while newscasts warn of a pending war that is foreshadowed throughout the book.

Fahrenheit 451 Review: While many critics have declared the book to be a critique of state-sponsored censorship and oppression, Bradbury himself has noted that it is society itself that has initiated and allowed the censorship to take place by turning its back on books and intellectual curiosity. While Bradbury may have originally intended it as an attack on television and its effect on people’s interest in Literature, today’s reader could make the connection with any number of new forms of entertainment (movies, video games, etc.) that seem to be distracting people from the joys of reading. And while intellectual censorship stills occurs with alarming frequency around the world, modern technical advances have also given books, thoughts and ideas the ability to travel around the world in an instant and live independently of the physical pages that use to hold them bound.

Fahrenheit 451 Quotes: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war.”

“Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but its a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily.

Buy Fahrenheit 451

Paperback
Kindle
Movie
September 24, 2010

1984 Review – George Orwell

Summary | Review | Quotes | Movie | Buy

This is another novel that I’d been meaning to read since I was young but only just recently got around to. I knew what the basic premise was, and I was familiar with plenty of the concepts that surrounded the book (Big Brother, ThoughtCrime and the use of the adjective Orwellian to describe an oppressive, totalitarian state), but I hadn’t actually sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

When I finally did, I was blown away. No other book that I’ve read even comes close to the constant level of dread, anxiety, claustrophobia and fear that 1984 is able to sustain. From the opening paragraph you can feel the main character’s feverish need to rebel against his oppression, as well as the impending sense of doom and fatalism he feels in the knowledge that he will mostly likely be caught and punished for his transgressions.

1984 Summary

If you don’t already know the basic plot, 1984 tells the story of middle-class bureaucrat Winston Smith in the fictional super-state of Oceania – a nation controlled entirely by the ruling Ingsoc party and its figurehead dictator: BIG BROTHER. Needless to say, Big Brother controls all aspects of life in Oceania, from where people

live, work and eat to the most intimate details of people’s personal lives (including their thoughts). Operating in a surveillance state in which ubiquitous telescreens keep watch over the population at all times, the mere thought of rebellion or disobedience is considered a crime punishable by death (or worse). It’s in this climate of fear and paranoia that Winston tries to assert his individuality and independence.

Winston finds a kindred spirit in Julia, a colleague at the Ministry of Truth, who at first seems to conform to the rigid ideals of the party but who eventually reveals herself to bea fellow libertine with a history of promiscuous behavior. Their secret love affair is a tender respite from the constant gloom and degradation of their daily lives – although the constant threat of detection looms large throughout. Along with their secret meetings, the pair also become interested in learning more about the mysterious rebel organization The Brotherhood (whose leader Emmanuel Goldstein is said to be an early member of the Party – and who is now Public Enemy #1). Their meeting with one of the Brotherhood’s supposed leaders marks a turning point in their rebellion.

1984 Review

The sheer visceral impact of the book’s not so subtle implications and warnings of the risks of unchecked totalitarianism and government surveillance do nothing to distract us from our intense sympathy for Winston and the emotional and psychological torment that he is forced to endure at the hands of the Party for transgressions that seem, to us, to be the basic rights of any human being. And even though the temptation is to think that this type of society could never really exist, even a cursory look back at the political landscape of the 20th century will reveal multiple instances of societies and regimes that foreshadow this type of manipulation and control.

While 1984 might not be a light read, it is still a powerful, engrossing book that has lost none of the impact that it had when it was first published in 1949.

1984 Quotes

“From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.”1984 Movie: A film version of 1984 was produced (released conveniently in 1984) that starred John Hurt as Winston Smith. The film got generally good reviews upon its release and adheres relatively faithfully to Orwell’s original text.

Buy 1984

Paperback
Kindle
Movie
September 26, 2010

#71 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review – Philip K Dick

Summary | Review | Buy
Very few science fiction writers have the ability to merge so many different themes and ideas together in a single novel as Philip K Dick. With its exploration of drug addiction, precognition, marketing, enhanced evolution, religious belief and the nature of reality, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of the most striking examples of Dick’s restless ingenuity and unparalleled imagination. With a novel so stuffed to the brim with complex ontological questions and spiritual provocations, you’d expect it to be a tough read. But in reality, Dick is able to keep the action brisk, the characters intriguing and the implications mind-boggling, all while infusing the entire thing with an unsettling mix of illusion and fantasy.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Summary

Set in a near future in which mankind has colonized most of the planets and moons of our solar system (mainly by the use of forced conscripts unlucky enough to have been selected in a lottery), a drug called Can-D is widely used by the exiled colonists in order to escape reality and experience a brief but hyper-realistic simulation of their previous lives on earth. Using a manufactured physical “Layout” as a vessel for their hallucinations (produced by Earth based P.P. Layouts, Inc.), users of Can-D are “translated” into the bodies of Barbie like dolls and allowed live and play in an idealized version of Earth – albeit for a short amount of time. The process of translation takes on religious overtones as well – with some of the colonists believing that this idealized world that they are transported to is actually real and that they are having a genuine spiritual experience.

Not only does P.P. Layouts control most of the market for the Layouts (as well as the illegal supply of Can-D that the colonists use), they also design and sell accessories for the layouts in order to make them seem even more realistic (i.e. dishwashers, ceramic pots, etc.). In order to gain an advantage over other accessory manufacturers, they employ a team of pre-cog marketers to look into the future to determine which products will be the most successful. However, their virtual monopoly over the illusory lives of the colonists is put in jeopardy by the return of the explorer Palmer Eldritch from a decades long trip to the Proxima system.

Leo Bulero, head of P.P. Layouts, rightly suspects that Eldritch has brought back a new type of Hallucinogen from the Proxima system that will rival Can-D and effectively put him out of business. Marketed under the slogan “God promises eternal life, We can deliver it,” Eldritch’s new drug (Chew-Z) is frighteningly powerful – especially since it seems as if Eldritch maintains some sort of control over the environment and experiences of those under the influence. With the approval of the U.N., Eldritch is poised to set up a distribution network for the drug in order to start muscling in on the “Translation” drug trade. In a last ditch effort to save his business, Bulero hires his former top precog marketer, Barney Mayerson (now a colonist on Mars), to serve as a double agent in order to question the safety of Chew-Z. Instead, Barney is pulled even further into the fantasy worlds of both men, leading to an ultimate confrontation in which the very nature of individual reality and existence comes into question.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review

Once you get past the sheer brilliance of the initial setup, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the masterful way that Dick weaves the story in and out of the various levels of reality and hallucinatory states. The idea that the only salvation that these exiled colonists can achieve is through a drug that projects them onto someone else’s existence is both powerful and profoundly sad. And as the actions and motives of Palmer Eldritch become even more sinister (and Dick’s allusions to the suffering of Christ which the three Stigmata signify become even clearer), we are left with a disturbing picture of god-like forces at war to control the human race.

Buy The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Paperback
Kindle
January 14, 2011