“The Oldest Soldier,” Fritz Leiber, 1960

“The Oldest Soldier,” Fritz Leiber, 1960 –Friends discuss the history of weapons while having drinks at their favorite hang out, Sol’s Liquor Shop in Chicago.  After, the narrator reflects on his hatred of war, complicated as it is by his “liberal” tendency to see both sides of the question, and his early notions of soldiers, picked up from texts in which characters like “Tros of Samothrace and Horatio Hornblower became [his] new secret heroes, along with Heinlein’s space cadets and Bullard and other brave rangers of the spaceways.”  He recalls longing for a means to gain a more substantive perspective and relates his delight in meeting Max, a real “soldier-of-history” who is able to speak with authority on the training and mindset of a soldier, of “Copenhagen and Copernicus and Copeybawa.”  During the discussion of weapons, Max drops the comment that he’s fought wars on Mars, that he’s actually a soldier from the future on a special kind of furlough, and that he’ll be returning to his time soon if the enemy (giant black dogs?) doesn’t find him and eliminate him first.  The narrator is delighted again, this time by Max’s “screwball” individuality in the face of modern conformity, and when he leaves he agrees to walk Max to his apartment.

While walking home, Max becomes agitated; even the narrator imagines that something is following them. Max asks to stop at the narrator’s apartment instead and then batters the narrator with a set of precise and bizarre instructions which include pocketing a piece of green paper (his blank “suicide” note, should anything befall him and the narrator need to be absolved of wrongdoing) and to act as “normally” as possible while Max hides in his bedroom and tries to contact headquarters.  The narrator does as told and desperately tries to read several texts (Jung’s archetypes, “The Raven,” Thomas Wolfe) and type meaningless phrases on his typewriter, etc., while ignoring Max’s presence and an ominous feeling of being watched.  Max seems to escape, and the green paper is suddenly darkened by his thought-writing (a literal “telegram”), which confirms his safety, and then bursts into flame.

Comments: Themes of media, advertising, war, soldiers, Jung’s archetypes, pacifism, WW I, WW II, Nazis, echoes of Poe at the conclusion. Read in Another World: Adventures in Otherness.

Excerpt:  “I really mean that about screwballs, you know. I don’t care whether they’re saucer addicts or extrasensory perception bugs or religious or musical maniacs or crackpot philosophers or psychologists or merely guys with a strange dream or gag like Max—for my money they are the ones who are keeping individuality alive in this age of conformity. They are the ones who are resisting the encroachments of the mass media and motivation research and the mass man. The only really bad thing about crack pottery and screwballistics (as with dope and prostitution) is the coldblooded people who prey on it for money. So I say to all screwballs: Go it on your own. Don’t take any wooden nickels or give out any silver dimes. Be wise and brave––like Max.”


“Everything in modern America has to have a big plate glass display window, everything from suburban mansions, general managers’ offices and skyscraper apartments to barber shops and beauty parlors and ginmills––there are even gymnasium swimming pools with plate glass windows twenty feet high opening on busy boulevards––and Sol’s dingy liquor store was no exception; in fact I believe there’s a law that it’s got to be that way. But I was the only one of the gang who happened to be looking out of this particular window at the moment. It was a dark windy night outside and it’s a dark and untidy street at best and across from Sol’s are more plate glass windows that sometimes give off very odd reflections, so when I got a glimpse of this black formless head with the two eyes like red coals peering in past the brown pyramid of empty whiskey bottles, I don’t suppose it was a half second before I realized it must be something like a couple of cigarette butts kept alive by the wind, or more likely a freak reflection of tail lights from some car turning a corner down the street, and in another half second it was gone, the car having finished turning the corner or the wind blowing the cigarette butts away altogether. Still, for a moment it gave me a very goosey feeling, coming right on top of that remark about an enemy underground.”

Author: Wikipedia: “Fritz Reuter Leiber, Jr. (December 24, 1910 – September 5, 1992) was an American writer (of German extraction) of fantasy, horror and science fiction. He was also a poet, actor in theatre and films, playwright, expert chess player and a champion fencer…With writers such as Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, Leiber can be regarded as one of the fathers of Sword and Sorcery fantasy. But he excelled in all fields of speculative fiction, writing award-winning work in horror, fantasy and science fiction…Leiber…was born December 24, 1910, in Chicago, Illinois, to the actors Fritz Leiber, Sr. and Virginia Leiber, and, for a time, he seemed inclined to follow in his parents’ footsteps (Theater and actors were prominently featured in his fiction). He spent 1928 touring with his parents’ Shakespeare company before studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he graduated with honors (1928–32).”


About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1960-1969, favorites, genrecraft, masculinity, media/advertising, nationalism, psych/mind/madness, surveillance, the uncanny, time/history/causality, totalitarianism/fascism, tourists, war/soldiers. Bookmark the permalink.

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