American Dreams: Philip K. Dick’s Pre-Acid Trip to Now

Well before he’d even touched LSD, the novelist /pharmaceutical visionary saw the potential of mind control for fun and profit in the The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

08.23.15 4:01 AM ET

The United States government’s search for the perfect truth serum began in the spring of 1942. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, chief of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA), asked a select group of prominent scientists to develop a speech-inducing drug for use in interrogating enemy spies, Nazi sympathizers, and prisoners of war. He gave them carte blanche, insisting that the need for such a weapon was great enough to justify any means necessary to create it.

The first trials tested alcohol, barbiturates, caffeine, peyote, and scopolamine, before settling on a potent extract of cannabis. This was, as Martin Lee writes in Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD, the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, “the first concerted attempt on the part of an American espionage organization to modify human behavior through chemical means.” But it was not the last. In the following decade, the CIA tested mescaline (inspired by Nazi experiments at Dachau), cocaine, and heroin, before settling on lysergic acid diethylamide in the early 1950s. They believed, in the words of one CIA officer interviewed by Lee, that they had discovered “the secret that was going to unlock the universe.” Despite some misgivings, they used LSD in interrogations into the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Army brass fantasized about dropping clouds of LSD “madness gas” over the Soviet Union. What would be the effect of dosing an entire country? In the coming years, after Timothy Leary and others popularized the drug, America would find out.

Incredibly, Philip K. Dick had not yet tried acid when he wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but readers of the novel will feel like they have. The novel’s premise was inspired by Dick’s reading about LSD, however, and he later described Palmer Eldritch as “a tremendous bad acid trip.” Synopsis is futile, but since the novel is so far ahead of its time, its story might most easily be understood through contemporary analogy: In the relatively near future, a massive corporation (think Apple) has invented a popular board game in which players assemble a miniature model world (think Lego), populated by two perfect humanoid dolls, Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt (think Barbie and Ken). When players take Can-D (LSD), a hallucinatory, only nominally illegal drug, they psychically enter the model world they’ve assembled. Multiple players can enter simultaneously, embodying the idealized physical forms of Pat and Walt, and have sex with each other. Escape to this virtual reality is desirable because, thanks to runaway global warming, the earth has become an infernal wasteland. Temperatures in New York City routinely reach 180 degrees; when an apartment building’s air conditioning shorts, parakeets keel over and a pet turtle boils dry in its shell. Things are worse in the planetary colonies, particularly Mars, where addicted colonists pine in their hovels despairingly for the next shipment of sweet Can-D. “It’s like religion,” says one character. “One plug of it, wouzzled for fifteen minutes, and…no more hovel. No more frozen methane. It provides a reason for living.”

Can-D’s dominance is threatened when a physically freakish, publicity-hungry mogul named Palmer Eldritch (think Donald Trump) returns from a mysterious decade-long exile in a foreign solar system toting a new drug. Chew-Z appears to be an improvement over Can-D in every aspect. The trips are longer, the side effects fewer, and the virtual reality appears to offer total freedom; users are not confined to the world of Perky Pat. Most incredibly, though the trips seem to last for months or even centuries, they pass in less than a second in earthly time. Chew-Z in this way offers eternal life. (Eldritch’s slogan: “god promises eternal life. we can deliver it.”) But when a high-level employee of the company that produces Perky Pat tries the new drug, he begins to suspect that the hallucinatory world of Chew-Z does not offer freedom at all, but a new kind of prison. Do Chew-Z users actually enter their own virtual reality? Or do they become imprisoned in a world controlled by Palmer Eldritch? Have they entered Eldritch’s own mind? Dick’s characters begin to sound like the Army soldiers in the CIA’s LSD trials:

[Eldritch] did all kind of things with me, things you and I never dreamed of. Turned himself for instance into a little girl, showed me the future, only maybe that was unintentional, made a complete universe up anyhow including a horrible animal called a gluck with an illusional New York City with you and Roni. What a mess.

The experience of reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is not unlike taking a tab of Chew-Z. An initial period of disorientation is followed by stages of befuddlement, discomfort, and irritation, before the patient reader achieves, at about page 50, a state of euphoria. Succumbing to Dick’s funhouse logic and cardboard characterization, you become addicted, a prisoner of Dick’s paranoid Russian-doll vision of the world. Hallucinations beget hallucinations beget hallucinations until it becomes impossible to tell which level of reality one occupies at any moment. Nagging questions of plot soon become inconsequential, however, as Dick moves on to higher questions. We’re made to wonder, for instance, whether “Palmer Eldritch” might not be a man at all but God Himself? Is our understanding of existence merely a shared delusion? Or are we merely figments in the fever dreams of some higher power?

Dick explores the now-familiar connections between hallucinogenic drugs and religious enlightenment, a resonance suggested by the novel’s title. Early proponents of the drug often made this connection, pointing out that hallucinogens have been used in religious ceremonies since Neolithic era; Timothy Leary would found his League for Spiritual Discovery in 1966. But Dick is careful not to drift too deeply into religious allegory. The drugs are not merely a portal to another reality; they are tools of mind control, created by powerful entities—corporations, moguls, political bodies, or perhaps alien races—to seduce and enslave consumers. The novel’s most nightmarish quality derives not from the strangeness of the visions or even the identity confusion they cause, but from the characters’ growing suspicion that they are being manipulated for profit. It’s the ultimate comedown. Counterculture euphoria co-opted for corporate gain: It’s a familiar story now, but in 1965 it had only just begun.

Other notable novels published in 1965:

Dune by Frank Herbert
An American Dream
by Norman Mailer
At Play in the Fields of the Lord
by Peter Matthiessen
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
by Kurt Vonnegut
by John Williams
The Warriors
by Sol Yurick

Pulitzer Prize:

The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau

National Book Award:

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Bestselling novel of the year:

The Source by James Michener

About this series:

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last centuryor, to be precise, from 1900 to 2020. In each column, Ill write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awardedthough awards do have a way of fixing an ages conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I wont pick any stinkers. Nathaniel Rich

Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs
1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy
1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman
1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright
1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle
2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James
1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1924—So Big by Edna Ferber
1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
1954—The Bad Seed by William March
1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow
1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson
1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1915—Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
1925—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
1935—Pylon by William Faulkner
1945—If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes
1955—Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov