Cover of The Big Time

The Big Time
Fritz Leiber
127 pages
published in 1961

Rereading Asimov's The End of Eternity remonded me of another time wars novel, a far more cynical and modern one: Fritz Leiber's The Big Time. And since I had never read a Leiber novel during all the time I've kept my booklog, I thought it was time to start. I had read this novel before, first in Dutch, then in English and been impressed by it. Nor was I the only one: in its original, magazine publication in 1958 it so impressed the fans that it won a Hugo Award, which is high praise indeed.

The Big Time is a somewhat unconventional science fiction novel, in that it's staged as a one room play, with the stage fixed while characters move on and off it. Which means that all the action that doesn't happen in the room has to be described in dialogue between the characters, which of course has a distancing effect. For a genre which often takes pride in creating awe inspiring, inventive and strange settings and then making them believable to the reader, this is an audacious trick. Leiber takes this huge idea of a time war, in which history is in constant flux and which spans billions and billions of years throughout the universe and only shows us glimpses of it. You wouldn't think it would work, but it did.

That it works is partially due to Leiber's considerable skills as a writer; having been a professional writer since the mid-thirties, when he was already a cut above his fellow pulp writers and partially due to his background in the theatre. Both of Leiber's parents having been involved with it, so he knew what would and would not work on stage.

The story is set up as a sort of a locked room mystery, taking place in an R&R Place outside of time, where soldiers fighting the time wars come to resst and recuperate. Greta Forzane is one of the entertainers at this particular Place, having been recruited by the Spiders sometime just after the nazis took Chicago. The Spiders are one of the two sides fighting the timewars, the Snakes being the other. Not that Greta, or any other entertainer or soldier has ever met any of the real powers behind the wars. It's Greta's job to patch up the soldiers fighting the war, making sure they can get on with changing history to let their side win.

The mystery in the story occurs when a group of soldiers, including Greta's favourite SS officer arrives, having been involved in a disastrous mission to maintain Crete's Bronze Age supremacy over the Mediterrean against Snake backed Mycene. Somehow during the visit, the place is cut off from the timestream entirely, the machine to do this has disappeared and has to be found again or the place will be cut off forever. A thin plot, but than the plot isn't the important thing here.

What is important is the claustrophobic atmosphere Leiber creates here, as well as the way in which he uses the interior psychodrama to illustrates the larger exterior story of the time war between Spiders and Snakes. Now for some reason before I took this novel out of my bookcase I thought it had been written sometime in the early seventies, as I remembered it as a sort of New Wave novel. In retrorespect it's real publication date, 1958 for the original magazine serial, fits the story much better, as it just exhudes Cold War paranoia.

There's the endless quasi-war of intrigue and subterfuge between two implaceable opponents who (start to) resemble each other, fought by clueless soldier pawns with no idea of their bosses real plans. There's the grand, noble future cause which for some reason requires not just tolerating, but encouraging evil today. Not that any of this is spelled out, but any reasonably informed and intelligent contemporary reader will have seen the parallels.

In short, what makes The Big Time such a good novel is that, like the best science fiction, it takes an idea and doesn't do the obvious thing with it, but uses it to reflect the society and times in which it was created. Many writers after Leiber originated the idea of time wars had fun with writing straight adventure stories around it, but only Leiber could've written this novel.

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Webpage created 05-01-2008, last updated 28-01-2008.