The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick (1965): Before there was virtual reality, Philip K. Dick spent a lot of time mulling over virtual reality in a wide variety of ways, from the machine-produced to the religiously derived concept of Maya, the physical world of illusion. Dick himself noted on more than one occasion that the two main concerns of his vast body of work seemed to be ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What is a human being?’, and this mid-1960’s novel explores both issues on a number of levels.
Dick certainly didn’t aim to predict the future; what increasingly disturbs in his work is his ability to predict the attitude of the future, our present. Various forms of mediated realities, dream-states, trance-states, and constructed environments play a part in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, with the boundaries blurring between them throughout the novel.
Things on Earth and in Earth’s colonies in the Solar System are pretty grim as the novel begins. Earth is getting hotter, to the extent that nobody goes outside unprotected during the day-time. Earth’s colonies on various worlds and moons are such a grim slog that the United Nations forces people to relocate there — and once there, almost all citizens quickly become addicted to the drug-enhanced game of Perky Pat, which I am not even going to try to explain at length here. It involves a virtual reality and a form of mind-sharing.
From Proxima Centauri returns the explorer Palmer Eldritch. And he’s got a new drug. One that seems to promise an endless ability to reshape one’s own past, perhaps in a virtual state, perhaps for real. But what does he get from this, other than money? A handful of people will try to find out, or possibly die trying. Or something.
It’s a deceptively dense novel with a nicely defined group of protagonists, or antagonists, depending on the situation. Dick’s wealth of invention is at full burn: the pervasive use of precognitive humans to predict what new products will sell is one such touch, and there are many others. It doesn’t look like our future at all, except that it looks exactly like it. Highly recommended.