“The Cosmic Poachers” was first published in Imagination in July 1953. Cited page numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel), 83–92.
Captain Shure is commander of a ship on an interplanetary police beat (actually gendarmes) in the Sirius system. The crew is tracking an Adharan freighter, suspiciously armed, travelling through Terran territory. Not knowing at first if they are pirates or a spy of the Adharan military, they observe the ship’s actions. The Adharans are an insectoid species and participate in some galactic trade organizations, but are largely unknown. The Adharan ship lands on one of the barren planets. This baffles Shure who does not understand what poachers or pirates would want with that planet. Later, the Adharan ship lands on the next planet. They seem to be visiting each planet in the system. Shure decides to set down on the fourth planet of the Shure system and wait for them to come to them when the ship lands there.
The fourth planet in the system has an atmosphere and was once home to another civilization. Shure explains his plan. Since they cannot destroy the ship and risk destroying the stolen cargo (whatever that is), the crew will immobilize the Adharans with a vapor cloud and then seize the ship, its crew, and its cargo. The plan goes well and the ship is immobilized and will remain immobile until the outside surface can be sprayed clean of the vapor.
Shure attempt to communicate with the Adharan commander but is unable to. The gendarmes are escorted into the ship and blast their way into the cargo hold. They see thousands of jewels. They assume that the jewels were once owned by the Adharans and were originally stolen by the now dead civilization of Sirius “city-builders.” In any case, everything on those planets is the property of Terra. The Adharans attempt to seal the gendarmes into the cargo room, but they escape by blowing a hole into the side of the ship.
After a short battle, the Terran crew defeats the Adharans. After the stolen jewels are collected and the Adharans confined, they wait for a cargo ship to secure the cargo. Sometime later, the jewels are put on cargo ship. They will likely become a luxury good when brought to Earth. One mystery remains. Why were the Adharans able to collect these jewels so quickly when the Terrans found so little of value on most of the planets in the Sirius system? They seemed to know just where they were. The Adharans are sent on their way.
The Adharan commander informs his superiors that his crew was only able to unload half of the eggs before they were stopped by Terrans. However this is not a major loss because Terra is a good environment for the eggs and they will hatch soon. Plus, the Mother can easily lay a new batch of eggs.
The twist ending to “The Cosmic Poachers,” when we learn that the Adharans are not actually poachers but members of a hive-mind civilization preparing locations for eggs introduces an interesting question about ownership and use. Actually, it works almost as well if the Adharans were poachers. Terra has acquired the Sirius system in some diplomatic negotiation, or possibly a peace treaty. Terra has scouted out the planet, but the only thing of value is the remnants of the city-building civilization. The fourth planet seems to be able to support human life (it is a bit too cold), but there is no evidence of settlement. No mining on any of the planets. If we go by what the story tells us, Terra owns Sirius on paper alone. Yet, the military defends the planet vigorously. The Adharans are essentially squatters on unused land. Sure, they are indifferent that their eggs will hatch on Terra and cause problems for them, but it is not their fault that the cargo was seized. There is no evidence of malevolent intent. I find little wrong in what they are doing. They are expanding but not intentionally conquering. Terrans are the ones with the true imperial perspective. “But we have to find out what they’re loading—and whatever it is, it belongs to us.” (85) I laughed out loud at that line on my last reading because it is so painfully true that this is exactly how the state and capital look at their own property. Take Internet file sharing. Copyright holders sometimes (not all are odious in this regard) target people for theft, but they are unable to make a clear case that something is lost.
This story has some similarities with “Expendable” in showing the resilience of insects over humans. Even if I am correct that we should not read the Adharans as a threat, it is clear that they could be a mighty challenge for Terra, even if at the individual level they prove to be rather pathetic fighters. They seem to be able to live in a wide variety of environments. They even put eggs on planets apparently no atmosphere. Adharan society is collective by nature. “Complex social structure, very rigid patterns. Organic-state groupings.” (84) The Terrans misinterpret the organic-state. Yes, it may have rigid social structure (the Mother for instance cannot be dethroned), but in practice they are quite flexible. They are able to deal with a catastrophic derailment of their plan with ease. Not to mention, the Terran social structure is probably just as rigid, but lacks the foundation in mutual aid (the structure at least does, but if Peter Kropotkin is right humans have an innate tendency toward mutual aid).
I do not know the origins of the scientific convention of evolving alien species from reptiles or amphibians or insects or birds. I suppose all of the major branches of the tree of life have been reimagined as alien species. Even if evolution to intelligence was possible for these forms of life, why would evolution on other planets necessarily resemble life on Earth? Are there good reasons to think, for instance, that something like insects will develop on any planet capable of sustaining life? Here I want to give some credit to Dick. While in this early story he is still confined to some of these science fiction conventions, in his later work he does become much more creative in imagining alien life (sentient slime molds, for instance).
History of empire and squatting.
*Note: The is a bit off topic, but the Kikuyu squatters in Kenya is a good example of an empire claiming ownership of land despite the use of the land by others.