"Spirituality," he said with disgust as he fished up the packet of Can-D from its cavity beneath the compartment. "A denial of reality, and what do you get instead? Nothing."
Climate change has left the Earth a scorched wasteland. (Good call, Philip K. Dick of 1964!) Traveling outside means using special cooling packs, but most people just don't step out of doors unless they're getting in a taxi. The rich adapt by paying for special treatments which speed up their evolution, giving them a chitinous shell to protect them from the heat as well as giant skulls to accommodate their newly massive brains. The middle class and the poor are subject to sudden draft notices which inform them that they've been selected for forced migration to the frozen hovels of Mars.
Being a Mars colonist apparently sucks. The colonists get by through the use of a special drug known as Can-D, which allows them to inhabit the bodies of a popular doll named Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt, which are clearly meant to suggest a 22nd-century Barbie and Ken. The colonists spend much of their excess cash on Can-D, not to mention the intricately detailed playsets modeled after pre-climate change Earth life. In one funny scene, a group of colonists are giddy to try out the new psychiatrist's office they've purchased for Pat, but they can't agree on how much the psychiatrist's services are supposed to cost--because many believe that they go through a kind of actual translation to Earth, even the smallest are vitally important.
The Can-D business is booming, despite its illegality, until Palmer Eldritch--a famous entrepreneur and adventurer, a kind of intergalactic Richard Branson--returns unexpectedly from Proxima Centauri in possession of a new drug, Chew-Z, which will supplant Can-D forever. Unlike Can-D, which only provides the illusion of an altered experience, Chew-Z seems to transport you into a new reality, one in which space and time can be manipulated.
I was telling Brent the other day that Dick's books tend to be formulaic. That's not a criticism, but an observation that, for all their wild inventiveness, they have really similar structures and characters. The protagonists are usually white males, simultaneously battling professional and personal disgraces, and without any really significant character traits. Who can tell Barney Mayerson, the Can-D representative who is the center of Palmer Eldritch, from Rick Deckard of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Or the protagonists of any of his other books, whose names I've utterly forgotten? The VALIS novels are the exception to this, and that's why they're Dick's best works; they alone really offer a sense that the personal travails of the protagonists are more than just a way of exploring the knotty thought experiments Dick projects into the future. I never attempt to rank Dick's books like I do some of my other favorite writers, because I'm not sure how to differentiate them.
On the other hand, you can see in Palmer Eldritch a foreshadowing of the idiosyncratic Christian mysticism of VALIS. The Mars colonists think of the Can-D experience in explicitly religious terms, likening it to communion. When the minds of the women exist simultaneously in the body of Perky Pat, or the minds of the men do in Walt, the parallels with the eucharistic body are clear.
Much of the book is taken up by the protagonists'--Barney and his boss, Leo, engaging in corporate sabotage--experiences on Chew-Z, trying to discern what exactly the nature of its powers are. Is it really a new reality? Or does it, like the specially evolved precogs of many of Dick's novels, launch you into a future time? Can it do both? Or does it merely trap you in the mind of Palmer Eldritch himself ? It's this last possibility which frightens the Can-D executives, because they suspect it will lead to the wholesale destruction of the human race, gobbled up inside the being of Palmer Eldritch, or perhaps an alien being who has come back in Eldritch's likeness. This leads to some trippy scenes late in the book, where Eldritch's title "stigmata"--laser eyes, a metal jaw, and a fake hand--begin to appear on everyone Barney comes into contact with.
After all, the creature residing in deep space which had taken the form of Palmer Eldritch bore some relationship to God; if it was not God, as he himself had decided, then at least it was a portion of God's creation. So some of the responsibility lay on Him. And, it seemed to Barney, He was probably mature enough to recognize this.
Getting Him to admit it, though. That might be something else again.
Ultimately, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch asks some oblique questions about how man might relate to God, and what that might suggest about his own independence and individuality. God, for Dick, hadn't yet become the alien ray of pink light of VALIS, but He is inscrutable, perhaps not entirely benevolent, and human beings are not very much in his likeness. Many of Dick's other themes are here, too: the questionable extent to which we can trust our senses to measure reality, for instance, and the dangerous allure of mind-altering drugs. Ultimately, Palmer Eldritch doesn't do much to submit the tried-and-true formula of Dick's novels, but I'm not complaining.