John's Reviews > The Big Time

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
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Jul 02, 10

Read in July, 2010

** spoiler alert ** I read this in my early teens and was crushingly disappointed by it. I knew enough about sf to know that for a novel to win a Hugo was a Big Thing, I'd read Isaac Asimov's first anthology of Hugo-winning shorts, I'd read a few Hugo-winning novels that had pinned me gasping to my seat . . . and yet this novel I'd picked up and hurried home with eagerly because of the big HUGO WINNER on the cover was a slight little thing, staged entirely in a single room and its antechambers, narrated in a quirky fashion, and with not a lot going on of yer actual dramatic action. Galaxies remained unspanned, gobs unsmacked.

So I was a little nervous when I picked up The Big Time again after an elapse of, gawdelpus, nearly half a century. This time around the novel's slenderness struck me as one of its major appeals . . .

. . . and then I read it, and discovered at last why it's absolutely right that this book should have won a Hugo -- in fact, it's depressing the book was published at a time when the ghetto walls around sf were tall and strong, because really the novel deserved wider recognition than a Hugo could offer.

Greta Forzane is an "Entertainer" in The Place, a Recuperation Station, one of a number of Places where troops go for R&R in between tours of duty as they fight the Change War, the war between the Spiders and the Snakes that's waged by altering history in order to effect desirable changes in the future. The troops -- and ancillary personnel like Greta -- are recruited ("Resurrected") by being plucked out of their lives in the Little Time soon before their deaths and brought into the Big Time, which is the amorphous spatiotemporal region that's outside spacetime and via which it's possible to travel immediately from one point in the Little Time's chronology to another. (One of the possibilities the denizens of the Big Time especially dread is Change Death, which happens when a change in history shifts the moment of your death to a point before that of your "Resurrection".) Making desirable changes to history is not as easy as you might think, because, as Leiber explains in his Introduction to the 1982 Collier edition (the SFBC version of which is the one I read),

I assumed a Law of the Conservation of Reality, meaning that the past would resist change (temporal reluctance) and tend to work back quickly into its old course, and you'd have to go back and make many little changes, sometimes over and over again, before you could get a really big change going [. . .:] It still seems to me a plausible assumption, reflecting the tenacity of events and the difficulty of achieving anything of real significance in this cosmos -- a measure of the strength of the powers that be. (p3)

Into The Place, which has something of the Blue Angel about it, tumble one day three weary temporal soldiers -- a Nazi officer, Erich (who is Greta's occasional lover and who beats her), a Roman legionnaire (whom she also knows) and a stranger, an English poet who met his death in WWI. While they are still settling in for their R&R, another trio arrives: a centaur, a creature from the moon when the moon was civilized millions of years ago, and a Minoan warrior princess . . . bearing with them what proves to be a 1950s atom bomb. One of Greta's fellow-Entertainers falls in love with the poet, whose work she has adored all her life and whose tragically early death in the trenches has always made him seem yet more romantic. While the principals are discussing various surprisingly interesting existential matters ("Can we tell the difference between the past and the future? Can we any longer locate the now, the real now of the cosmos?" -- p 65), one of their number switches off and hides the Major Maintainer, the gadget that maintains The Place in its correct relationship with not just the rest of the Big Time but the rest of all reality. The cast (a term I use because the novel reads in some ways like a stage play) could be trapped here in isolation forever. Yet, since The Place is only one big room and a couple of secondary ones, where -- and how -- could the Major Maintainer have been hidden in such a fashion that even the most painstaking search fails to reveal it?

Minds are concentrated when Erich, the sociopathic Nazi, arms the atom bomb so that it'll detonate within half an hour. The only way to escape the blast would seem to be to locate the Major Maintainer and then, reconnected to the rest of reality once more, sling the device out of The Place before it can explode. In other words, the characters' survival depends on their ability to solve what's a fairly distinguished locked-room mystery. (The solution, when it finally appears, is one that John Dickson Carr would have been pleased with.)

As noted above, the Change War is being waged between the Spiders and the Snakes. No one knows what the purpose of the war is, or what result could possibly constitute victory for one side of the other. None of the cast, although their nominal allegiance is with the Spiders, have ever met a Spider, and certainly they've never met a Snake; they have no idea, in fact, who or what the Spiders and Snakes are. To most of the characters, especially the soldiers, this barely matters: they loudly detest the Snakes, have great loyalty toward the Spiders. Exceptions are Greta herself, with whose thoughts we grow most acquainted since she's our narrator, and the poet, Bruce, who is likewise, as a poet, introspective. It's Bruce who, in an impassioned oration to the others, spells out the reality of war as it affects ordinary soldiers and civilians:

But I'm forgetting that this is a cosmic war and that the Spiders are conducting operations on billions, trillions of planets and inhabited gas clouds through millions of ages and that we're just one little world -- one little solar system [. . .:] -- and we can hardly expect our inscrutable masters, with all their pressing preoccupations and far-flung responsibilities, to be especially understanding or tender in their treatment of our pet books and centuries, our favorite prophets and periods, or unduly concerned about preserving any of the trifles that we just happen to hold dear. (p63)

Now, of course, I have to try to lay hands on Leiber's spinoff shorter Change War pieces: "Try and Change the Past", "Damnation Morning", "The Oldest Soldier", "Knight to Move" and "No Great Magic".
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