Friday, December 18, 2015

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

There is such a thing as too weird
A war is underway to determine the fate of the universe. Both sides use time travel to change the course of historical events to suit their own ends. These opposing powers, known only as the Spiders and Snakes, exist outside of our known time-space continuum, and thus are able to move freely throughout space and time as we know it. They recruit soldiers and agents by plucking people out of their mortal existences in regular time and offering them a sort of conditional immortality as spatial-temporal nomads if they fight in this universal conflict known as the Change War. Outside of our universe exists an isolated pocket of space-time that serves as a recuperation station (kind of like a USO center) for the Spider soldiers. A motley crew of characters end up together at this facility, including a Nazi commandant, a Roman legionnaire, a Civil War soldier, an ancient Greek amazon, a prehistoric moon creature, and a Venusian satyr. Though they’ve all come to this way station for rest and relaxation, they soon find themselves faced with a predicament possibly even more perilous than the war that rages outside.

Fritz Leiber’s novel The Big Time was originally published in the March and April 1958 issues of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. It won the Hugo Award that year for best novel. I have an interest in time travel literature, particularly from the pulp fiction era. Given the acclaim this book has received, I approached it with optimistic enthusiasm but was sorely disappointed. The Big Time hasn’t aged well, and it serves as an example of what’s wrong with a lot of old-school sci-fi.

The novel is narrated by Greta Forzane, an “entertainer” at the station, whose duties seem similar to those of a dance-hall girl in an old Western saloon. She tells the story with a slang-peppered rapid-fire delivery that recalls the style of vintage hard-boiled detective novels. Each of the various visitors to the station speaks with the peculiar accent of his original time and place, though all are up on the latest hipster slang. No matter where or when they’re from, however, each eventually breaks into a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that reads as if it were lifted from a Virginia Woolf novel. All this unnecessary verbosity soon becomes quite annoying and tedious. It seems like Leiber may have been going for an effect similar to beat poetry, but it ends up sounding like a schizophrenic Robin Williams comedy routine. In addition, though the scientific concepts he envisions in this novel are quite interesting, Leiber doesn’t do himself any favors with the terms he uses to describe them. Spiders and Snakes? Really? That’s the best you could come up with? The players in the war are divided into different categories with inappropriate supernatural names—demons, zombies, ghosts—none of which are ever satisfactorily explained. Change War, Change Winds, Change World—it all sounds rather kitschy and infantile.

At about the halfway point, the novel turns into a mystery story, and not a very good one. The resolution of the puzzle hinges on a pseudo-scientific concept that was previously concealed from the reader, so it feels like a cheat. The whole novel is kind of like that. Leiber just makes up new rules as he goes along. Every time you think you know how things work in this fictional universe, he introduces some new device or Change phenomenon that alters the possibilities. That’s not creative; that’s just annoying, and kind of lazy. The idea of the Change War, fought by forces from beyond time and space, is a good one, but Leiber himself doesn’t take his own brainchild seriously enough, and the result is one messy, silly, and frustrating book.
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