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The Big Time
Change War #1
by Fritz Leiber
Ace 128pp
Published 1958

The fourth winner of the Best Novel Hugo, awarded in 1958 at Solacon in South Gate, CA (technically Los Angeles but hey, 'South Gate in '58!', went to Fritz Leiber's 'The Big Time', originally published in 'Galaxy' magazine. It's an odd novel and I was surprised to find that I'm in two minds about it.

Leiber is an author I know, albeit primarily for his sword and sorcery stories about Ffahrd and the Gray Mouser. He coined the label for that subgenre. His novels, often expansions from short stories, are wildly varied so don't form a career ouevre as much as a career exploration. He won six Hugos, I believe, including a second for Best Novel, 1964's The Wanderer.

I'm surprised, having read all the Ffahrd and the Gray Mousers multiple times, to realise that I can't remember having read any of these novels, not “Conjure Wife”, not “Gather, Darkness!” and not “Our Lady of Darkness”, which looks so far up my alley I should surely read it next.

It's good in a way to realise that, while there are winners I've read widely, such as Robert A. Heinlein, and winners I hadn't read at all, such as Alfred Bester, there are also winners I know and have read but should explore better. I'm taking note of the side trips I need to take as this project runs on.

I'm of two minds about 'The Big Time' because it's a really unusual novel in a lot of ways, an attribute that tends to appeal very much to me, but I'm still not quite convinced at how it was done. Leiber intrigued me with his approach and he impressed me with it, but I don't think he completely sold me and that may be why the book, as often as it's been printed, isn't remembered as well as others from this era.

The concept at the heart of the novel is that there are two factions fighting each other through time, a battle known as the Change War. They're nicknamed Spiders and Snakes, though we never meet any of them to see why. Each side is convinced that they're on the right side of history, literally, because they go back and forth to change things and sculpt it to their preference. To fight this war and make these changes, each side recruits people from history, who fight alongside people from other times or even other places, like Venus from a billion years in the future.

It's a heady concept and one well worth exploring within the science fiction genre. However, Leiber refuses to follow the conventions we expect. We're not going to follow those time soldiers here, in their quests to tweak history in this era or that. We see as much of the Change War as we do of its masters, the Spiders and Snakes. Instead we spend the novel outside of time in what's called a recuperation station, a point to which soldiers can retreat for a well-earned break and some special attention from an entertainer.

Let me explore how odd this choice is.

This is technically a war novel without a war, a time travel novel without any time travel and a vast trawl through the entirety of time and space that takes place in a single location held in a sort of bubble outside of space and time, which our lead character simply calls "the Place". This is the Big Time of the title, by the way, which is protected from the changes wrought by the war in the universe at large, known as the Little Time.

That lead character isn't a Snake or a Spider, nor even a soldier. She's an entertainer, a human woman named Greta Forzane, who narrates our story in a bubbly conversational manner. While Leiber was writing in 1958, so this is a family friendly read, an entertainer in this context is a combination of nurse, therapist and prostitute, which in its way could describe, in 1958 terms, the role of a stereotypical society-suppressed housewife.

Like 1950s housewives, she does experience the War, I mean the world at large, by taking mandatory vacations during operations, like one in Renaissance Rome where she developed a crush on Cesare Borgia but got over it, but mostly she sees it at a level of remove. Soldiers arrive at the Place, from wherever and whenever they've been fighting to take a break from it, and she experiences what's happening through them.

Leiber even refuses to define which side is right, merely showing us a set of characters on one side, that of the Spiders, which include a Nazi flyer, a Roman gladiator and a Venusian satyr from a billion years in the future. Are they fighting for the right side? They're not even sure of that and who would know better than them?

It's a fantastic approach, one that makes this feel like a play rather than a novel, as physically restricted as it is. It would be easier to translate to the stage than Alien, which a bunch of high school students achieved on a shoestring budget recently. A few props in a single location, a set of characters who rarely leave and a lot of dialogue. That's easy to turn into a production.

However, Leiber then structures everything around something as conventional as these characters having to come together and deal with an atomic bomb in their midst, not least because it's been triggered. This is really a locked room mystery of a science fiction novel, merely one told in such a way that the science fiction elements are utterly crucial to how it's set up and how it's solved.

All this makes for a heady mixture. It's short and fluffy, especially given the language with which it's told, almost like 160 pages of gossip, partly given in Shakespearean prose and mostly in breathless chatter. However, it contains a wild array of ideas, many of which only present themselves when we think about the book after closing the last page. It was written over a dozen years before I was born but still feels original and somehow unique, even if Poul Anderson took up the same concept in 'The Corridors of Time'.

'The Big Time' is clearly an important book. I appreciated it a great deal and I'm still thinking about it almost a month after reading it. However, I still haven't quite figured out if I like it or not. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For reviews of other Hugo winners click here

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