Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review of The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

In his classically styled epic fantasy novel The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison plucked a man from our Earth and deposited him on a Mercury where the kingdoms of Witches and the Demons were preparing for war.  The war occurred, but like the titular creature, the end of the novel features a reversion to the beginning, the conflict starting anew.  Utilizing a similar idea (the recursive nature of man’s conflicts) but framing it in wholly different form, Fritz Leiber’s 1958 The Big Time sets its story against the backdrop of real history, incorporates future history, and proceeds to comment in theatrical fashion upon human behavior.  The language and word play brilliant, the short novel (in fact a novella) is a timeless gem of science fiction and worth a read for anyone interested in the literary side of the genre.

The Big Time is told by an Entertainer named Greta Forzane.  Residing in the Place, an R&R/infirmary located outside of time where Spiders fighting in the great Change War come to relax, Greta is responsible for helping soldiers recuperate while they take a break from their eternal fight against the Snakes.  The soldiers drawn from all eras and cultures, in the opening pages three come in from the Void needing a break from the action: a Roman legionnaire named Mark, a Nazi SS named Erich, and a 17 th century British jack-of-all trades named Bruce.  After a brief fight in which one injures another, they eventually settle down and begin to discuss the war at large, how the Snakes are altering history to affect the future, and the miserable state of the Spiders’ defense.  But soon enough three additional soldiers come in from the fighting, and carried with them is a locked box. The content a ticking atomic bomb, the Change War gets forgotten as those in the Place try to find a way to defuse or dispose of the deadly object.

The underlying premise of The Big Time is the Change War, and indeed it is worth the capitalization.  Fought in the past, present, and future for a victory that may or may not come billions of years in the future, Leiber sums up one major aspect of humanity in a single, succinct science fiction conceit.  Possessing a cyclical rather than a linear view of history, Leiber is cynical towards the idea of human evolution in utopian proportions, thus rendering the novel in dialogue with many of Leiber’s more linear-minded Silver Age contemporaries.  Given the atomic weapon is the major crux of the novel, Leiber’s view of its potential value and use for mankind would seem concerned to say the least.

Bits of German, Russian, and Latin peppering what is already colorful dialogue, Leiber showed his erudition penning The Big Time.  Shakespearian English likewise mixed with modern slang, the author also showed his literary background.  The story premise already incorporating the most disparate elements of existence and language, what would perhaps be jarring in another setting flows in this story of human in the context of eternity, every period and culture at his disposal. 

Leiber having spent some of his career in theater, its no accident the structure of the novel imitates a play.  Easily able to be staged, the majority of he action is set in the single-roomed Place, and with a flashback and -forward here and there, content overwhelmingly consists of dialogue.  Nailing this idea home is the representative rather than realistic presentation of character.  A strong Waiting for Godot undercurrent to the story, Leiber uses his people as symbols of the idea at large and the manner in which it permeates time.

In the end, The Big Time is a dynamic piece of science fiction which uses the motifs of the genre and the mode of theater to comment upon society past, present, and future.  The novel seemingly published as a reaction to the Golden Era of America and the Silver Age of science fiction, there is an undercurrent of cynicism.  Heavily disguised by word play, humor, and immediate concerns of the small group of people suddenly confronted by an atomic bomb on their doorstep, the story in fact extends far beyond, making the novel good commentary as much as good story.


  1. I think Leiber's The Big Time lays the crown for the most underrated (and off the wall weird! especially for the 50s!) of the Hugo winners for best novel.

    1. I just had a look through the Hugo winners and, you're right; there is nothing as surreal on the list. Such a different work than what paid Leiber's bills (i.e. the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories), it was great to see Gary Wolfe choose The Big Time as one of the Library of America's nine great sci-fi novels of the 50s.

      At the current rate the Hugo is racking up mediocre genre as "best of the year", it will be a long time before any such surreal/literary work is awarded again. Good catch!