“Expendable” is a story by Philip K. Dick, first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1953. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 149–156.
A man leaves his house and hears the caterpillars who are keeping him under surveillance. He has already figured out what creatures are working against him by listening to their conversations. The birds are not a threat, but he is unsure about spiders.
The ants discuss their plan of attack against the giant. Tirmus has doubts. Although the giant can understand the insects, he would not be taken seriously by other giants so he is not a threat. After a vote the Hill decides to march against the giant.
On his way home, the man sees a spider which warns him against going inside his house. When he reaches the house he is attacked by a massive number of ants. He fights them off by spraying water at them. A beetle (or similar insect) moves past. This was the first time he was attacked in his home.
He begins to have a conversation with a spider, different from the one he saw outside. The spider informs him that there are different types, but a since acre of land have 2.5 million spiders and numerous ant, their enemies. He explains that the ants used to dominate the earth until humans arrived. After a massive war, the humans forgot about their conquest of the Earth and the insects degraded into different “tribes.” The spiders, bred by the humans, were their strongest allies and sustained the war. Another spider, a black widow, warns the man that there will be trouble but they may be able to save him. The man is relieved until he learns that the spiders were speaking of humanity, not himself. The floor begins to stir.
The story suggests a long-standing war between humanity and insects that has long been forgotten by the invaders, but is deep in the social structure of the colonized. The historical context of the story strongly suggests an allegory for decolonization. The ability of the man to understand the language of the insects gives him special knowledge about their motives and perspective. Most humans, are indifferent to the insects and are incapable of seeing them as a threat. When unified, however, they are an unstoppable force. Some, such as the spiders, were raised to support the invading regime and have a more intimate knowledge of the reality on the ground. The invaders, who have internalized their victory are mostly indifferent to this history and how it is remembered by the victims. It sounds not unlike the experience of the British in a place like India or the French in Algeria. When the story came out anti-colonial movements were active around the world. It is hard to prove this interpretation or the more straightforward ecological narrative. In Dick’s more environmentally conscious stories, he suggested the human impact on the Earth, but the hypothesis that the Earth could correct itself by striking out against humanity—hinting at the self-correcting planet of the Gaia hypothesis—is relatively rare.
In notes to this story written in 1976, Dick wrote that the story was more about the limits of experience of paranoia he felt when a fly buzzed in his ear. While a slightly more banal reading, it seem to be closer to Dick’s original intention. It is nice to see a conspiracy from below that we can sympathize with. Rather than the victims being paranoid, would will all be better off if the ruling class has a good reason to be paranoid.
Wikipedia entry for “Expendable”
History of working class conspiracies is very real. Read this book if you get the chance.
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