This collection, once popular and widely read, is becoming obscure. This is something of a shame, because, although some of the stories in it are not particluarly memorable or excellent, there is one that is very good, and one that is simply outstanding.
The Last Command is well worth reading, a story in the mode of the "living machine" like some of Laumer's other "Bolo" stories, thoughtful and even moving at the end. It is the title story, however, that makes the book, and which really ought to make it read by anyone who has an interest in Science Fiction as philosophical commentary on life itself.
Few would probably guess it, but Once There Was a Giant was undoubtedly conceived as Laumer's answer to Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land. It is his attempt to create a heroic, idealized character that represents a kind of model of everything that is best in humanity, something that people could be if they were not limited by human frailty, fear, and weakness. That character, of course, is the giant, who becomes locked in a battle of wills with the narrator of the story, a human hired killer who lives, much like modern humanity, only for his own pleasures and solely selfish gains. He is ruthless, deceptive, and manipulative, but unsentimental and untroubled by conscience or self-doubt, except at the very end, where his facade finally develops one single, subtle crack and he catches a glimpse of the the emptiness that is in his heart.
The giant is a heroic warrior with a will of iron and an absolute, single-hearted commitment to what he belives to be right. He posesses no fears except giving in to fear in the face of pain and danger and failing to do the right thing. He is calm, focused, respectful of the land and those who came before him, practicing a kind of mysticism somewhat like that of Native American warriors or Japanese Samurai.
The story is somewhat short, straight to the point, and full of action, but balanced by conversations that reveal the heart of the two characters and what they belive in. Laumer's style, full of metaphors and "hard-boiled" descriptions that owe something to 50's detective fiction, works perfectly here as the voice of the narrator.
This story, and particularly its conclusion, do what the best Science Fiction and the best books, plays, films, etc. do. It leaves you thinking about your life, and even your own identity, and what life is really all about. It's a truly outstanding read, and a sadly neglectled one.