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.
Title: The Big Time | Author: Fritz Leiber | Publisher: Ace | Pub. Date: 1958 | Pages: 152 | ASIN: B004UJHII4 | Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Source: Purchased | Unstarred Review
Reading The Big Time
1958, and what a year it was. Sputnik fell from the sky, NASA rose up, Rosalind Franklin passes far too quietly, and so many great Jazz albums.
You thought we were in 1957, didn’t you dear reader? No, nothing could be that easy. After a long two-year run of picking a best novel the Hugos decided to take the year off with no winner and no nominees. It must have been a down year for the field with only (looks at notes) The Stars My Destination by Bester, Pohl’s Slave Ship, The Dragon in the Sea by Herbert, … My god what were they thinking? There were many terrific options, but the list should have begun and ended with The Stars My Destination, one of the very best works of the generation.
Two years ago, in the before times, I was hunting in a used bookstore at Pike Place Market and ran across “The Big Time” by Fritz Leiber, and the cover right there told me it was a Hugo winner. I loved his sword and sorcery stories growing up but had no idea he wrote sci-fi so I put down my $1.75 and went home with a new treasure. I’ve since learned that he wrote in many genres, which was both a strength and weakness of his career. He also was usually well ahead of his time, as they say.
The Big Time is about a cross-time war between two factions, the Spiders and the Snakes, spanning Billions of years and an unknown number of Solar Systems. Soldiers have been plucked from the time stream and drafted with the promise of skipping their own death. Leiber passes up the opportunity to pick well-known characters, and one comments that no truly important people join the battle which is why they could not go back and draft Einstein, he would have been too wise to accept the bargain offered. It’s a clever excuse for everyone there being mundane but a poor choice, how could Einstein have passed up the opportunity for a time war?
So, the stage is set, a galaxy-spanning battle across all of history, and the title right there says it’s The Big Time. But that is misdirection, the entire story takes place in a cramped space of just a few rooms and mostly around a party area with a big bar. The background is a convalescence center for soldiers to recuperate physically and spiritually. And half of the cast are “Entertainers” that help them. Today we would call them prostitutes.
There are a number of clever ideas at play here. There is a bomb, on a timer, thus a time bomb, in this space that exists outside of time. I can imagine the author laughing to himself. We get to hear stories about how different battles were won and their outcomes, such as Nazi America, or the Gothic Catholic church. And the question of what reality is, how does it push back against changes, and can it wear through. I think this last point was the most interesting and really it starts to come together in the last few pages which is disappointing.
But for me, there were too many problems to recommend this even taking into account the passage of time. We have a relatively short story in a small space with twelve important characters. Yes, I had trouble keeping them straight. The narrator, Greta, says almost nothing though she often thinks to herself with quoted passages, then bites her tongue. The pattern occurred so often I found it jarring and eventually wondered if I remembered her saying anything at all. The dialog is stilted, not because it was written in the ’50s but because Leiber was trying to be clever by mixing dialog from across time, and having some characters use mixed forms, like offering up a Shakespearean passage ending in “kiddo.” For me, it did not work.
But worst of all was the misogyny. Erich says “So now we have to listen to women making speeches” in the middle of the story, and punches Greta in the eye at the end. He was a violent prick throughout, but she was assigned to nursing him back to health, so she put up with it. Actually, early on she says she loves him. We’re told one man argues like a woman. And finally, we’re told that what men know as fulfillment women see as destruction – “Help, I’m being raped!” This is not just a problem with one character, for the most part, women are nurses, prostitutes, or actually in more than one case both. “Ghost Girls” exist in a library to satisfy the needs of male soldiers but there are no “Ghost Men.” No, this problem lies squarely on the author, who can imagine a place outside of time and space but not capable women who earn and demand respect. I have decided to never revisit Lankhmar, preferring to live with my fond memories from decades ago rather than learn what may have missed the first time around.
In the end, The Big Time is a futuristic escape room story filled with bitter jerks and lost people from throughout time, drinking and having parties, and pulling back from their moment to actually do something different and step up to the big time. It is far from the worst Hugo so far, but far from the best as well. I feel the need to rate this a “Run Away”.
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