Wednesday, April 21, 2010

#20: Childhood's End, #67: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Childhood's End:

“Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” 
"No utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart.” 
“In this single galaxy of ours there are eighty-seven thousand million suns. [...] In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world. [...] It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.”  
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke is often cited as one of the best SF novels of all time. Understandably so, because it certainly deserves that distinction. Childhood's End is a classic tale of an invasion by aliens with technology and intelligence beyond that of humans. Clarke however, adds a twist to the alien invasion subgenre, invented by Wells' War of the Worlds.
The aliens are seemingly benign, they come not to make war or conquer Earth, but to instill peace, end world hunger, end hatred, and make all peoples equal and happy. These alien "Overlords" come in ships over every major city on Earth to solve all of mankind's problems. Since these overlords are so powerful and mysterious, they meet less resistance than expected. The Overlords themselves are rarely seen, they remain mostly in the background throughout this entire novel, and their leader, Karellan, is one of the few Overlords given more than a brief mention as an individual. As the Golden Age of humanity starts, society stagnants, no new art, literature, or radical method of thinking is produced. Clarke presents the reader with the paradox...Is this enforced taming of the human race good for us, or bad?
 Throughout the novel, the reader is always once again drawn back into this paradox, somewhat akin to the world of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the people are happy and have everything they want, but things like art and real human emotion go to the dogs. In Childhood's End, however, there is no savage reservation. All of humanity is peaceful and apparently enjoying themselves. This is when Clarke brings into the picture why the Overlords felt they had to confine the humans to a peaceful, perfect life on Earth, just as mankind seemed poised to reach the stars. The theme of benevolent aliens doing Earth supposed good, but possibly going through their own agendas has been used countless times since this novel was published, but this will always trump them all.
Childhood's End is a fantastic novel, and definitely one of the twenty best SF novels ever written, as well as one of the twenty most significant to the genre. The paradox at the end of humanity joined together as something better, but no longer individuals, members of the Overmind is also an extremely interesting one that will get debate going and get the reader thinking.
An excellent SF novel, a tale of mass minds and human evolution (into something greater, rather than Vonnegut's Galapagos, where we evolve into unintelligent aquatic mammals) is not to be missed by any fan of the genre. A seminal, serious piece of SF literature.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:

“I mean, after all, you have to consider we're only made out of dust. That's admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn't forget that. But even considering, I mean it's sort of a bad beginning, we're not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we're faced with we can make it. You get me?” 
“The time, then, had come for him to poison himself so that an economic monopoly could be kept alive, a sprawling, interplan empire from which he now derived nothing.” 
“No one, it appeared to Barney, had anything to do now; the weight of empty time hung over them all.” 
"You can't die in a hallucination...any more than you can be born again"
This is your typical Philip K. Dick novel --filled with reality bending, psychedelic experiences, crazy drugs, visions, and corporations violently battling with each other for control of the human mind. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of Dick's more well-known novels, and considered by many to be one of his masterpieces. I prefer works like Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and lesser known mind-benders like Now Wait For Last Year, but Three Stigmata, for me, remains an enjoyable read. 
The Earth is used up in the near future, and the average temperature in New York City is 180 degrees Fahrenheit. People carry around portable AC units to cool themselves off, as well as portable robot psychiatrists in suitcases. Telepaths are available for hire, and large companies often offer their services for large fees. The Solar System has been colonized, although the colonies are not very productive, essentially hell-holes in which colonists are confined to their living quarters all the time because of the blistering harsh conditions. These colonists get by through a drug called "Can-D", manufactured by a large corporation, which "translates" their bodies into young attractive, sexy people...Meaning that they have hallucinations that they are inside the heads of either a young woman or a young man in a tropical paradise, having ecstatic sexual experiences and just an all around fantastic time. To make the experiences even better, the people can buy extra small dolls and furniture for them, which will also appear in the hallucinations (some have argued that PKD predicted the phenomenon of reality TV with this interesting concept). The people whose experiences these drug-users are feeling don't really exist... the drug users lie in trance while it all happens in their heads. If you've read any PKD, you know the usual motifs -- it's dark, ingenious, and filled with mayhem. 
The main plot of the novel revolves around a conman named Palmer Eldritch, who has mysteriously traveled out of the Solar System, and returned (possibly still human or possibly an alien masquerading as such) with a new drug he has discovered called Chew-Z. This drug promises immortality, although with a hitch he doesn't mention. While under Chew-Z's influence, time stands still, while the user experiences bizarre, and sometimes unpleasant, visions. They are essentially transported to another universe in their minds. Oh yeah and one more thing: Palmer Eldritch acts as a god is all of these private Chew-Z universes. 
This is certainly an insanity laced mad-man's novel. Not to be missed for any PKD fan --its got all your typical Dick mayhem, and might be a good start for those unfamiliar with the legendary SF author. A truly excellent, mind-bending read. You'll hurt your brain wondering what's real and what's not. But of course that phrase applies to almost all of PKD's novels!

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