Ergodic Nightmare - The world of choices in Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Johan Svedjedal


All literary fiction can be construed as simulations in the readers’ minds, as enactments of imagined worlds. In science fiction, this device is laid bare since the genre often consists in thought experiments without normal "realist" pretensions – not least since many science fiction works also describe interrelated, alternative realities, and depict travels between them.

In this respect, Philip K. Dick is a paradigmatic writer of science fiction, writing about alternative worlds and jumps between different strata of reality. At the same time, the successful author Dick was trying hard to find a new narrative form, beyond the confinements of the printed codex book. Metaphorically, he described his novels as at least two novels superimposed in a sort of 3-D novel.

The subject of this article is Dick’s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), in which the protagonists use drugs to relive parts of their earlier lives and to alter choices they have made. The novel is mainly a study in existential frustration and the protagonists’ growing insights into the precariousness and irreversibility of human choices. The structure of choices in the novel is analyzed with the help of the concept of "ergodicity", i.e. the necessity for the reader to choose between various alternatives in multi-forked narrative structures. In this sense, Dick’s narrative technique in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (published in the same year the concept of "hypertext" was introduced by Ted Nelson) depicts the predicament of mankind trapped in a world of links.

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