Tony and the Beetles

Story Background
“Tony and the Beetles” was published in Orbit Science Fiction in 1953. It is currently most easily available in the third volume of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (now known as Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick). It can be found on pp. 123–133 in that Second Variety version.

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Plot Summary
Tony Rossi wakes up in his compartment and goes to enjoy breakfast with his parents. They live on Betelgeuse, a colony planet of Earth but populated by the natives that resemble beetles on Earth. They are listening to news from the war front on Orion. Tony’s father, Joseph Rossi, suddenly is outraged at the news, which reports on a near defeat in the front. Joseph blames the Earth commanders for moving to far from their supply lines. He is disgusted that Earthmen are losing to “beetles.” Leah Rossi, Tony’s mother, suggests that Earth underestimated the resistance. Tony questions his parents for using the term “beetle” to describe the people from Betelgeuse, reminding them that Orion is their system and that the humans have occupied it. Tony’s father is disgusted at his son being a “beetle lover.” Tony goes out for the day with his EEP (a sort of robot pet) into the city of Karnet.

On the road, Tony is picked up by a passing Pas-udeti (the formal name for the people of the Betelgeuse system) in his internal combustion engine vehicle. Asking pedestrian Earthmen if they need a ride is required by law. Tony is used to more friendly encounters with the Pas. The driver makes a joke about selling Tony’s EEP for scrap. After a brief talk about the changing fortunes on the front, the Pas kicks Tony out of the car. Tony is forced to take a public bus. On the bus he meets a female Pas. Tony tells her that he was born on the colony and that his father was part of the settlement policy. She warns Tony about coming into the city because the people are worked up over the news. She then suggests his family returns to Earth. Tony explains that this is impossible due to the radiation on the Earth’s surface. There is simply no room.

Tony finds his Pas friends. They are working on a model of a spaceport together. They refuse to talk to him. Tony asks them why they are mad at him. He reminds them that he had nothing to do with the invasion of their home by Earth over a century ago. Living here his entire life, it is as much his home as it is their home. One of the children point out that the news shows the Pas are going to win war, forcing Earth to pull back. One of them uses a Pas pejorative term for humans, “white-grub.” B’prith, one of Tony’s more familiar playmates, tells Tony that he is not allowed to visit anymore. They start throwing rocks at Tony and attacking him. The EEP helps protect Tony long enough for a Terran scout ship to pick him up.

Back home, Joseph explains to Tony that the battle was truly lost. He promises revenge both for the attack on Tony and the defeat on the front. Tony confesses that he now understands that although he was born there, Betelgeuse is not his home. Joseph vows that humanity will fight for every inch and that it will take centuries before they are pushed back to Sol.

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Analysis
Apparently, the story “Tony and the Beetle” was seen as pedestrian by Dick’s agent and the story was sent to a low-priority and newly started magazine. It was only anthologized once (in 1958 under a different name) before it found permanent publication in the collected stories books. There are some problems with the story. Its allegory is too obvious and the characterization of Tony’s father is horribly black and white, but since Dick was writing in a period where tensions where high about the ramifications of decolonization and the Cold War promoted binary thinking, there is still something that feels real about Joseph Rossi’s jingoistic exclamations. The story still has a lot going for it as a commentary on decolonization.

Tony’s situation was not at all uncommon in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War II, decolonization rapidly transformed the European colonies into independence nation states. Sometimes this was done peacefully, but more often it was accompanied by violence. In the case of India, the handover was peaceful, but the British departure was followed by ethnic violence. In Algeria, Indonesia, and many other places there were wars of resistance preceding decolonization. In most of these places, decolonization was followed by ethnic cleansing. People of European descent, including many who were born and raised in the colonies, were forced to leave as the former colonies created new identities based on nationalism. This may have been necessary, but it was nonetheless traumatic for many. Another possible parallel is the transition from plantation slavery to Jim Crow. Plantation slavery was a racially integrated system and black and white children knew each other and would play together, at least until a certain age. With the end of slavery, enforced by brute power, the South moved toward racial separation. The same transition is taking place at the end of the story. We do not know the fate of the war, but we do know that Tony will not have Pas playmates anymore.

We see that Tony thinks he is liked and believes he has real friends among the Pas. He corrects his parents for using a pejorative term against the Pas. He seems to be well-meaning, but still he benefits from all sorts of institutional privileges as a member of the colonizing race. He lives in a nicer apartment, Pas passing by are required to lend assistance to him, he gets the use of better technology (the inequality of technology is a sub-theme in the story), and the Pas children are forced to be his friend. He learns at the end that all of this was a false. Even his friendship with B’prith was based on lies and propped up by the power regimen. The rapid change in the power relations brought an end to all of these lies.

Tony’s father is a major figure in the story. He is the more honest of the two. He seems to know that the Pas hold no love for Terrans. He is uncomfortable that his son seems to have internalized some affection for them. Yet, it seems that he wants Tony to learn the hard way that B’prith and the others are not his friends. Joseph’s jingoism is similar to the refusal of conservative whites in the post-Civil War south or in the former colonial powers to accept the end of white supremacy. He says: “But by God we’ll wipe them out. Every last one of them. If it takes a thousand years. We’ll follow every last ship down—we’ll get them all. [. . .] Beetles! Goddamn insects! When I think of them, trying to hurt my kid, with their filthy black claws.” (132–133)

Resources
Background on “Tony and the Beetles,” including the agent’s disregard for the story.

Some of the relationship between imperialism, decolonization, and the Cold War.

Audiobook version of “Tony and the Beetles.”

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Invasion, Alien Life, Childhood, Empire, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Power, Space Exploration, war and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tony and the Beetles

  1. This isn’t one of his best stories,and it made little impression on me,as my memories of it are rather vague.It was one of his earliest however,so can’t be expected to have reached his later maturity yet,but at the rate he was churning them out,it not surprising he produced pieces like this.The accompaning artwork was truly dire too.

    It’s just a the seed on the theme of colonisation and the end of empire.Any allegorical or satirical significance I therefore find weak.”Martian Time-Slip” contains a more realised insight on the subject,and the disillusion of the frontier.The Martian Bleekmen aren’t really badly treated,but in terms of sovereignty,are really no better than plantation slaves.”We” have taken their land away from them.They resent the fact that authorities back on Terra,want to erect buildings on sacred land,which will lead to the downfall of “our” colony on their world,that is quite plain to Manfred Steiner with his prophetic gifts,as it seems it is to the Bleekmen.There’s obviously no future for “us” here as a thriving settlement.

    Dick could obviously see that the former colonial dream in his own country,had already fallen into a decadent state.

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