The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Ace Books, 1961
Price I paid: none
“A superior adventure-mystery about the strangely assorted crew of men and women, snatched out of their lives by emissaries from the far future, who fight and scheme to change the structure of time and history. Two unseen forces are at war in the Big Time, the enemy Snakes and the Spiders. The plot has suspense, but it is the personalities of the participants in the Change War, and the concept of the War itself that is fascinating.”
―P. Schuyler Miller, Analog
“Thomas, you realize that this book won a Hugo in 1958, right? It’s considered a classic of the genre.”
Yeah, I’m aware.
“Then what’s the deal? This ain’t your lane.”
I don’t really have an argument to present. I just felt like doing this book. It looked good.
“You’re not supposed to review books because they look good.”
Okay! Fine! I felt a little depressed and I wanted to read a book and review it and have a little bit of positivity in the world instead of the incessant but justified howls and curses that I hear from all corners of the Internet, okay?
“…that’s not all of it, is it?”
No, it’s not. I happen to like time travel stories and this one came up while I was looking up something else.
I needed to pronounce Fafhrd and got sidetracked. You know, Wikipedia.
“How do you pronounce Fafhrd?“
I never found out.
“Think everybody’s tired of this weird conversation thing yet?”
I imagine they are.
Sorry about that, everybody. I got carried away a little. You know what’s funny? Writing conversations with myself is a little too easy in a way that scares me a little.
What we’ve got here, as you may have noticed, is a bona fide classic of science fiction. A Hugo winner. I’ve reviewed books by Hugo-winning authors before, but this is my first time reviewing a Hugo-winning book. The Big Time won the award in 1958, and from what I can tell, it looks like it ran unopposed. Anybody wanna confirm that?
Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve ever read a Hugo winner. Part of the reason I started this blog in the first place was that most of my s-f reading was mired in winners of the various awards, so I felt the need to break out of that trap. Here I am again, though, and I don’t regret it.
Don’t worry, I’ll return to dreck next week, I promise. I’ve got a real doozy picked out. You’ll like it.
Okay, this book. What right do I have to review a book like this? One that was lauded as the best in the whole year of 1958? (Anybody care to tell me what it had as competition, incidentally?) The truth of the matter is that I just wanted to read it because it looked like it had an interesting premise, and I’ve just about gotten to the point where reading something without the intent to review it makes me feel guilty. I think I’ve brought this up before. So here we are.
This book was pretty good. I liked it.
For starters, we’ve got a female protagonist. She’s also our first-person point-of-view character. While there’s a fair amount of that 50s/60s kind of patriarchal pseudo-feminism that Heinlein readers like to point out―quite validly, I might add, and that’s coming from a fan―it’s not as gross as the Admiral was known to sometimes get. I guess what I’m trying to say is that what we have is a lady character who is quite capable at her job and of progressing the story in her own way, but the way she does it is purely by doing “things that women are good at, let’s celebrate them.”
Said protagonist is Greta Forzane. She’s an Entertainer.
There are lots of capital letter words in this book, fair warning.
Her job is to live and work in a place called the Place. It is outside the Cosmos. Outside Time. It’s a rest area for the soldiers of the Time War.
I have a deep affection for Time War stories.
One of the primary strengths of this book is that we get few details about the Time War itself, but what we get is enticing. We know that the two sides are called the Snakes and the Spiders, and that the characters we follow are on the side of the Spiders. We never learn who the ringleaders of this operation are, or even why they’re called that.
We get some glimpses of the War and what’s being done to the timeline in its name. Thanks to meddling, the Nazis are running North America…
that’s too low-hanging a fruit for even me to take a jab at comfortably
everybody just please be careful and love yourselves and one another and take care of yourselves and one another
…and Crete has surpassed both Greece and Rome as the leader of the ancient world.
We don’t see any of that happen, though. We only hear about it secondhand. The entire action of this book takes place in the Place, which is a stage with a few wings off of it. This book has more in common with No Exit than it does with Dune. It was fascinating. If anybody has ever put on a stage production of this book, I would love to see it. If they haven’t, then somebody should. There would be some technical issues involved but I bet some clever folks could figure out a way around them.
Greta keeps the troops entertained and helps them recuperate after missions, missions that usually end up being brutal both physically and mentally. This is the kind of “look at the things women are good at” mentality of fifties writing that I can imagine people getting annoyed by with good reason. Either because I’ve read so much of it or because I need to check my privilege (prob’ly both), I’ve become inured to it.
There aren’t a lot of characters in this book. What we get is a small cast stuck in a weird situation. It’s one of those pressure-cooker-type stories where everybody starts to get on everybody else’s nerves and there’s also a mystery involved. The mystery was my least favorite part. What was most important was the human drama, or at least that’s what I’d like to say. What was most important to me was the little hints about this crazy Time War that kept getting dropped.
The folks in this bubble of not-space included some of the other ladies who work in this place, a doctor who is always too drunk to be useful, a Nazi, a Roman soldier, a Cretan dude, a WWI British poet/soldier, a Lunarian, and a Venusian. I wish I could remember which was which, but the Lunarian and the Venusian were from extreme ends of history. One was from about a billion years ago, the other from about a billion years in the future. Was it a billion?
We get some stories back and forth in a way that made me really aware that this book started as a novella and got punched-up to novel length. The real meat of the story happens when the Place gets sealed off from the rest of the universe because a doodad goes missing. Everybody’s looking for the doodad. Somebody hid it. There’s speculation that the Snakes now have the ability to attack places like the Place directly, but that’s supposed to be impossible, seeing as how the Place is surrounded by literal nothingness that’s not even vacuum. It’s outside reality. How can you attack something from outside when there’s no outside?
Man, this book was full of stuff like that. It was fun but it got a little thick on the ground sometimes. We’d also get long expository sequences that didn’t bother me but I can imagine how somebody who thought those things make for bad writing would not be thrilled with this book.
There’s also an atomic bomb in the Place, brought there for reasons I’m pretty sure I missed by a team that shows up about halfway through the book after a bad mission near and around Ancient Egypt. I think they were going to nuke Rome? Or Egypt? Or maybe the Snakes were going to and the bomb got liberated? I dunno. It didn’t seem important.
The point is that now there’s this atomic bomb in the room and everybody’s nervous about it. There’s talk about disarming it but nobody’s qualified. There are some speeches about how the War is wrong and how everybody fighting in it has been duped and worse than drafted. There’s a lot of arguing. It’s all interesting stuff, at least to me, but it’s also hard to recount in summary form.
As tensions get worse, one of the soldiers, Erich the Nazi, arms the atomic bomb. The group is still sealed off from the rest of the universe because this doodad is missing, and I guess he’s trying to force the hand of whoever took it. (The fact that they all still exist is proof that the doodad is still working.)
It’s Greta who figures out where the doodad is. There’s a device in the Place’s medical bay that turns things inside out. It’s used for surgery. Whoever took the doodad used that device on the doodad and put it in the art gallery.
This is yet another one of those cases where I feel like mystery plots and science fiction don’t mix all that well, but at least the turner-insider-outer device was mentioned a few times up to that point.
Everything works out in the end. The a-bomb gets defused and everything returns to normal, which was the scary part of the book. Everybody was at each other’s throats for the whole second half of the book, and then after things work out they’re all pally-wally again. It’s not a new way to end a story―or even an uncommon one―but it’s always one that gets to me on a gut level. It’s just that feeling that everybody’s going to at least try to forget that one of their number tried to kill them all, that they all snapped, that people are not nearly as civilized as they’d like to think. They’ll try to forget, but they never will, and the next time something happens, it’ll probably be worse.
This book does not have a happy ending, even though everybody’s drinking and having a good time as it closes.
Of course, there’s also the fact that this Time War is still going on and might well be going on for a very long time after the book closes. There’s a good chance it’ll keep going on forever. Who knows?
We’re not given much information about the conflict, as I said, but the little bits we get are so enticing. This war isn’t relegated to Earth, or even the Solar System. One person mentions off-hand how some ETs from outside the galaxy showed up during one mission. This thing might well span the universe.
That’s neat, but it does make me wonder why Earth matters, then. I’m sure that’s sort of the point. We’re never told why the Snakes favor the East over the West and that the Spiders even had to go so far as to make the Nazis win WWII to keep the balance of power on their side. That’s right, folks, the “good guys” in this book were the ones that changed history to make Hitler win. Greta herself is from a Nazi-occupied Chicago. (I think? I hope I’m remembering right.)
We’re never even shown what makes our side the good side. I think we’re just supposed to assume they are because they’re the one’s we’re following, but it’s not clear, and Leiber does a good job at making us start to question that assumption.
There’s so much stuff packed into this slim paperback that I can’t contain it all in this review. There are so many things hinted at, so many little explanations of how this fiction works.
Readers that are already deep into science fiction are probably already familiar with this book on some level. If that’s you, then I’m happy to strike up a discussion, and please let me know what things I missed.
If you’re only now getting into science fiction, though, you can do worse than to add this one to your stack, read it, and join the discussion too.
Would I have voted for this book to win the Hugo? I’m not sure. The fact that I can’t seem to find anything competing with it from that year makes it a hard question to answer. I’ve read better books, for sure, but I liked it a lot. Maybe not for the right reasons. I didn’t come away from this book with a new vision of the human condition or anything like that. I was entertained and I had some thinky muscles tickled, but I also can’t remember most of the character’s names and there’s not any particular point where I said “Yes, this is a great book. This bit here, that’s why this book won the Hugo.” I’m probably not going to go around quoting it any passages that I thought were inspiring or enlightening.
The book was just…good.
EDIT: I’ve been informed that until 1959 the Hugos didn’t announce the runners-up. My bad.