Phillip K. Dick has a few favorite themes to which he often returns: physic abilities, drug addiction, human evolution, ecological disaster, consumerism, the theology of St. Paul, law enforcement, space travel, etc. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) he deals with them all.
With the sun heating up years before schedule and daytime temperatures on earth creeping up 180 degrees, the UN has begun drafting people to emigrate to a miserable existence on Mars or the moons of Jupiter. There is a lively drug trade among the colonists, run by a toy company that sells Barbie dolls (in this book, she is named Perky Pat). The drugs help the colonists commune with Barbie and Ken in their perfect worlds as a way of escaping their awful existence. People with psychic ability are used as marketing consultants, since they can tell which Barbie accessories will sell best among the drug users. When intergalactic adventurer Palmer Eldritch returns from a distant star system with a new, better hallucinogenic drug, a drug war ensues.
The critique of consumerism alone is enough for a whole book, with the rich irony of a toy company selling both Barbie dolls and drugs, both manifestations of escape into unreal worlds (Barbie’s infinite career choices, endless wardrobe and impossible body) and the manipulation of needy people through a dynamic of diminishing return.
But focus of The Three Stigmata revolves rather around the nature of the drugs themselves: both the Barbie drug (Can-D) and the new drug (Chew-Z) allow people to communicate with one another within the hallucinated world. A man and woman can interact with each other as Barbie and Ken, or two women inhabit the same Barbie even as they lay comatose. On Chew-Z, people can actually create entire dream-worlds and interact with each other in those worlds.
The controlling metaphor for these drug-induced experiences is the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, commonly called Communion. Through the Eucharist, believers are placed in communion with both God an one another. The Roman Catholic doctrine of substance and accidents is applied: the bread and wine, once consecrated by a priest, only have the outward qualities of bread and wine( accidents); but the underlying reality (the substance) is of the body and blood of Christ. Likewise, drug users may take on the every outward appearance of Barbie and Ken, but they remain Mars colonists underneath.
And that would be more than enough for a whole novel, but Dick brings in another aspect: who exactly is the new drug dealer, Palmer Eldritch?
He was once human, but in his deep space travels he seems to have been possessed by something else, some sort of angel, demon or god. Those who take his drug inhabit the imagination of Palmer Eldrich, and he lives in them. (Dick’s controlling metaphor here is the Christian doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.) But this is an unholy indwelling that does no good to the drug-users, who find themselves in a living hell, hallucinating about missed opportunities and old regrets.
OK, I admit this book was a little much. But I was impressed by the way Dick tried to explore the dramatic possibilities of the most abstract doctrines of medieval Christianity, like a secular C.S. Lewis. But then Phillip Dick was not entirely secular either. No one would have called him an orthodox Christian, there are wide streams of Gnosticism in his writing, but he was someone who took the claims of faith seriously and obviously spent allot of time reading Christian theology.