The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Published: Galaxy Science Fiction, 1957
Awards Won: Hugo Award
“Have you ever worried about your memory, because it doesn't seem to recall exactly the same past from one day to the next? Have you ever thought that the whole universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, then you've had hints of the Change War.
It's been going on for a billion years and it will last another billion or so. Up and down the timeline, the two sides--"Spiders" and "Snakes"--battle endlessly to change the future and the past. Our lives, our memories, are their battleground. And in the midst of the war is the Place, outside space and time, where Greta Forzane and the other Entertainers provide solace and r-&-r for tired time warriors.” ~WWend.com
This is my second-to-last novel for WWend’s 2012 GrandMaster’s Reading Challenge. Fritz Leiber was an author with a wide-ranging imagination, who applied his skill to many kinds of speculative fiction. He wrote a number of Hugo award-winning science fiction stories (including this one), but he was also the author of many acclaimed works in horror and fantasy. Last year, I reviewed his horror/urban fantasy novel Conjure Wife, which may soon get its 4th film adaptation. The styles of Conjure Wife and The Big Time are so different that they seem almost written by different people. I think that Conjure Wife was written more for wide appeal, which could be one of the reasons why it has been adapted to film so often. The Big Time, on the other hand, is a very unusual book, and one that I could see having a smaller audience through the years.
I think that Leiber’s background in theatre is evident in The Big Time. It is very easy to imagine the story being performed on stage, and—unless you wanted to do something elaborate with the alien costumes—I don’t think it would even be an especially expensive production. The set and various prop pieces are very clearly described (as such) by the narrator, and the entire story takes place in a single location (called the Place). The story is tightly bounded in time, as well, telling the events of a short period in the lives of Greta, the other entertainers, and a small group of time soldiers. The eventual mystery and its resolution are paced well, and I appreciated that the reader is actually given all the clues to solve the mystery on their own. As in a play, most of the surface plot of the story is told through visual description and dialogue. I liked how Leiber gave each of the characters a distinct style of speech, reflecting their home time period, but I thought that it sometimes sounded a little too stilted. I feel like the dialogue might come across better in a well-performed audiobook, or in a conversion of the story to stage drama.
The strong personality of the first-person narrator, Greta Forzane, might be a major factor in whether or not one enjoys the novel. She’s '29 and a party girl', and she tells her story in a very casual and conversational way. Here’s an example of some of her early exposition:
“…you are not likely to meet me in the cosmos, because (bar Basin Street and the Prater) 15th Century Italy and Augustan Rome—until they spoiled it—are my favorite (Ha!) vacation spots and, as I have said, I stick as close to the Place as I can. It is really the nicest Place in the whole Change World. (Crisis! I even think of it capitalized!)
Anyhoo, when this thing started, I was twiddling my thumbs on the couch nearest the piano and thinking it was too late to do my fingernails and whoever came in probably wouldn't notice them anyway.” ~Chapter 1
To me, Greta seems pretty immature and ditzy, but I don’t think that would be a fair assessment of her character in total. She seems to strive to diminish herself in order to care for others more. She doesn’t really have strong opinions or convictions (except that the Surgery room is awful), and thus frames most situations in terms of how they affect the people around her. Her behavior and style of narration make her seem kind of empty-headed, but she proves to have pretty good reasoning skills. It seemed almost as if her self-dismissive party-girl persona was designed to keep her focused on her work and distracted from thinking too seriously about her life.
The different ways Greta and the other characters cope with their strange lives is what lies behind most of the conflict of the novel. All of the characters have been permanently removed from their natural timelines to fight a war that seems to have no end or final goal. They know very little about either side, so they don’t even know whether they’re fighting to achieve an outcome that they would consider worthwhile. Regardless, the decisions made by the “Spiders” completely govern the characters’ lives. They don’t even have control over their own minds, as the actions of soldiers in the war alter their own memories of their lives. Since they have essentially no control over their own destiny, they are left in a continuing existence that seems arbitrary and purposeless. The characters grapple with the facts of their existence in their separate ways and consider whether an attempt at rebellion is even a meaningful gesture. The exploration of these reactions made the story much more compelling to me, but also considerably bleaker.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Big Time is a very short novel, and one that I think I appreciated more than I enjoyed reading it. The narrator, Greta, with her exaggeratedly ditzy behavior and moments of clarity and insight, may be a difficult character to like, and her personality colors the entire story. I think it’s a pretty common observation that this novel is very influenced by principles of theatre, and even that it would be very easy to convert this story into a relatively simple theatre production. The basic plot and eventual mystery moves along swiftly, with plenty of character-based tension (prompted by circumstances). However, the underlying existential crisis of the characters gives the story a surprisingly depressing depth. It’s definitely a strange novel, but I think I’m glad I gave it a chance.
For more of a discussion of the philosophical content of the novel, The Hugo Endurance Project has a good review here.