Set in the late 1960s and 1970s, the story describes the efforts of Episcopal Bishop Timothy Archer, who must cope with the theological and philosophical implications of the newly-discovered Gnostic Zadokite scroll fragments. The character of Bishop Archer is loosely based on the controversial, iconoclastic Episcopal Bishop James Pike, who in 1969 died of exposure while exploring the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in the West Bank.
As the novel opens, it is 1980. On the day that John Lennon is shot and killed, Angel Archer visits the houseboat of Edgar Barefoot, a guru, and reflects on the lives of her deceased relatives. During the sixties, she was married to Jeff Archer, son of the Episcopal Bishop of California Timothy Archer. She introduced Kirsten Lundborg, a friend, to her father-in law, and the two began an affair. Kirsten has a son, Bill, from a previous relationship, who has schizophrenia, although he is knowledgeable as an automobile mechanic. Tim is already being investigated for his gnostic, allegedly heretical views about the Zadokite scrolls, which reproduce some of Jesus Christ's statements about the world, but have been dated to the second century before the birth of Christ.
Jeff commits suicide due to his romantic obsession with Kirsten. However, after poltergeist activity, he manifests to Tim and Kirsten at a seance, also attended by Angel. Angel is sceptical about the efficacy of astrology, and believes that the unfolding existential situation of Tim and Kirsten is akin to Friedrich Schiller's German Romanticism era masterpiece, the Wallenstein trilogy (insofar as their credulity reflects the loss of rational belief in contemporary consensual reality).
The three are told that Kirsten and Tim will die. As predicted, Kirsten loses her remission from cancer, and also commits suicide after a barbiturate overdose. Tim travels to Israel to investigate whether or not a psychotropic mushroom was associated with the resurrection, but his car stalls, he becomes disoriented, falls from a cliff, and dies in the desert.
On the houseboat, Angel is reunited with Bill, Kirsten's son who has schizophrenia. He claims to have Tim's reincarnated spirit within him, but is soon reinsitutionalised. Angel agrees to care for Bill, in return for a rare record that Edgar offers her.
Transmigration is one of Dick's most overtly philosophical and intellectual works. While Dick's novels usually employ multiple narrators or an omniscient perspective, this story is told in the first person by a single narrator: Angel Archer, Bishop Archer's daughter-in-law. Dick's work was often criticized for its flat, stereotypical female characters, so Angel may represent his effort to prove he could create a rich and believable feminine voice.
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