Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a deeply symbolic work. Centered largely on concepts of soft science fiction, Dick presents to the reader a work which is based essentially on themes of philosophy and theology; he leads the reader to ponder such concepts as the true nature of reality and the direction in which our current society is headed based on then-current social and cultural phenomena - specifically, the growing use of hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s. These themes are presented by way of a dystopian future set in the year 2016. Due to the nature of the thematic material and the complexity of the work itself, the book is clearly intended to be read and understood by an adult audience.
The book opens with a description of a bleak future. The Earth has been rendered uninhabitable outdoors due to extreme temperatures upwards of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This would be presumably due to global warming, although Dick does not specify the cause in the novel. Indeed, throughout the work, the hard science behind the nature of the conditions and the technology used is not explained at all. Elements such as "E Therapy" - evolution therapy which causes a person to artificially evolve - are not explained at all from a scientific perspective. In this case, the hard science is not relevant to the development of the plot, characters, or themes of the novel.
The dystopian elements continue throughout the novel. There are colonies on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system; however, these colonies are even more undesirable than an Earth in which no one can go outside in direct sunlight. Unlike many science fiction authors who paint colonization of other planets as an exciting picture, for Dick, these colonies would be anything but exciting. As a result, the United Nations must forcibly "draft" random citizens who must then live on one of the colonies, never to return to Earth again.
The result of this draft is that the colonists find themselves with very little for which to live. As a result, they rely on a drug called Can-D - hallucinogenic in nature - to pass the time and provide them something to which they can look forward. What is unique about this drug is that its experience is shared among all the people who take it in presence of one another.
The religious themes are rampant throughout the text. Palmer Eldritch is seemingly a parody of a Jesus figure. The title references "three stigmata," these being his metal, disfigured jaw; artificial arm; and glowing, artificial eyes. It is no accident that the stigmata are all technological in nature. If Dick truly felt that technology would lead us to a dystopian future, then the use of the stigmata fits perfectly with that. Jesus's own stigmata were the wounds caused by his crucifixion on his feet, arms, and torso. The stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, then, can be seen as "wounds" which result from the actions of using technology to enhance the human...