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The Big Time Paperback – March 7, 2001
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Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) is best known as a fantasy writer, but his achievements and influence are also considerable in the horror and science fiction fields. One of his major SF works is the Change War series, about rival time-traveling armies locked in a bitter, age-old war for control of existence; the battles frequently alter the course of human history. The most important work of Leiber's Change War series is the Hugo Award-winning novel The Big Time, in which doctors, entertainers, and wounded soldiers find themselves treacherously trapped with an activated atomic bomb inside the Place, a room existing outside of space-time. It's not one of Leiber's strongest novels: the cutesy-girlish narrative voice is unconvincing, while the demands of describing time travel and time paradoxes inevitably strain the prose. But The Big Time is a tense, claustrophobic SF mystery, and possibly the ultimate locked-room whodunit.
In addition to the Hugo, Nebula, Derleth, Lovecraft, and World Fantasy Awards, Fritz Leiber received the Grand Master of Fantasy (Gandalf) Award, the Life Achievement Lovecraft Award, and the Grand Master Nebula Award. --Cynthia Ward --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“An extraordinary tour de force with no equal in the literature of science fiction.” ―A Reader's Guide to Science Fiction
“I most urgently recommend this book to you . . . What the entrances, performances and exits of this little mostly human troupe accomplish is a statement about all wars, and all people.” ―Algis Budrys
Top customer reviews
This is a war novel. The main battle scenes are all off-stage. They don't grab me. Better is Starship Troopers which starts in media res in a combat drop. Similarly, the protagonist doesn't live through the crucial moments of her life, resurrection into the Big Time: she recapitulates them.
I also didn't buy the future army's organization into fighters and entertainers.
The actual crisis in the novella is appealing, and the gimmick is worthwhile. There's one scene with the alien overlords that really stands out.
The resolution, though, left me lukewarm.
Also, the Project Gutenberg version has illustrations, but the Kindle version doesn't.
A lot of people liked this story enough to earn it a Hugo. Not for me, though.
The one-star review is for the Kindleization only; "The Big Time" is one of my 10 favorite SF novels of all time.
This was originally published in 1958 in Galaxy magazine. Then published as a novel in 1961. My small ACE paperback (3rd printing, 1972) runs just 171 pages of rather large print and large margins. So it is a quick, easy read.
The year of publication was during some rather "hot" times during the Cold War. And was right before the Twilight Zone came on TV, during a golden age of interesting TV shows. (The Outer Limits would premiere a few years later in the early 1960s.) The work comes across almost as if it was written by Rod Serling and would've made a great TZ episode during the one season they had hour-long episodes.
This really is a play. I kept thinking of Satre's No Exit, where a small group of people are trapped in a room for all eternity. They are in Hell. And realize that Hell is other people. Here we are in a Recuperation Station that is located within the Space-Time Void. It exists in a null space outside the material universe, surrounded entirely by that Void. "Doors" suddenly open and people arrive. They come from any time or place. So the basic cast are the "workers" in the RS. Our narrator, Greta Forzane, was 29 and a party girl when she "joined" The Big Time. The eternal time war between the "Spiders" and "Snakes". Their RS is Spider, which appears to be analogous to our Western Alliance during the post-WW II Cold War. Their opponents are analogous to the Soviet-Sino Communist Bloc. The time war has been going on eternally with no end in sight. And the characters don't ever get to meet the "real" Spiders or Snakes.
What makes this story "work" is that Leiber tries to take time travel seriously. So we have some idea and a vague understanding through these characters, their lives and interactions, about what it "means" to have died repeatedly but still be living, to encounter those who will die without being made a part of the Big Time, those who lived at one point but who will die and never live as their future or past are changed or obliterated. Thus Change Winds and Change Death come into play. Big changes in time lines alter the thoughts of characters who will continue to live, but they know they may die at any time. The Spiders and Snakes hold out endless Resurrection as a promise. Here is a basic description of the reality:
"Our side in the Change War is the Spiders, the other side is the Snakes, though all of us--Spiders and Snake alike,--are Doublegangers and Demons too, because we're cust out of our lifelines in the cosmos. Your lifeline is all of you from birth to death. We're Doublegangers because we can operate both in the cosmos and outside of it, and Demons because we act reasonably alive while doing so--which the ghosts don't. Entertainers and Soldiers are all Demon-Doublegangers, whichever side they're on--though they say the Snake Places are simply ghastly. Zombies are dead people whose lifelines lie in the so-called past" (p. 15)
The main plot of the story is that a team preparing for a mission in our ancient times enters. They have an atomic bomb with them. After this the Main Maintainer, which allows them to exist in the Void, disappears. And they are "Inverted", which is akin to being in a ship that is scuttled to prevent capture by the enemy; they exist in the Void but can't be reached by either side. They still have the Minor Maintainer, which maintains oxygen, food, gravity, etc, So they are safe and possibly eternally so, if they so chose. Eventually one of the characters actives the atomic bomb. They have 30 minutes to deactivate it or die. Then all hell breaks loose. The secondary plot is that one of the new entrants proposes that they stop participating in the War and work to stop it and even undo it. The characters are forced to address the thought and take sides.
During the story new characters are admitted. Mainly in two groups. These include two ETs (a Lunan, who looks like an octopus, from a billion years in the past and a Venusian, who looks like a satyr, a billion years in the future) as well as a Nazi and a Roman soldier.
In the Change War stories, two enemies, called "The Spiders" and "The Snakes," are engaged in a vast war, which has been going on for a billion years and may go on for another billion, with battles throughout the universe. The battles are fought, in part, by going back (or forward) in time, to change the outcome of a historic event and therefore warp the path of history so as to lead to the eventual victory of one side or the other. Soldiers recruited for the fight can be Roman gladiators, 15th century Hussars, Nazi soldiers, or even extraterrestials.
Although the scope of the Change War takes in all of space and time, Leiber daringly wrote this as a very short novel (probably only about 100 pages or so in printed text) and set it in a single room over the course of only a few hours, with characters entering and exiting as if in a play. Despite the short length and limited physical and temporal scope of the novel, the plot takes any number of twists and turns, and the story deals with complex themes of fate, loyalty, war and peace, and existentialism. No one knows what the "Spiders" and "Snakes" really are, or what the war is actually about; history has been changed so many times by the warring factions that no one can be sure what reality is any more. Thus, the book is both an exciting piece of science fiction and a genuinely profound meditation on the human condition. Leiber's penchant for word play is also evident, and the story is full of literary and historical allusions. A short read, but very rewarding.