Written by: Fritz Leiber
Published by: Tom Doherty Associates
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber is one of the most uninteresting pieces of literature that I have had the misfortune of reading. For its want of a plot and excessive world building, The Big Time seems content to break the one rule of good writing that has been pounded into my head on countless occasions: show me, don’t tell me.
Mr. Leiber’s novel deals with a temporal war between two factions, the Snakes and the Spiders. Both sides use time travel to alter past events as they pursue their enigmatic agendas. Don’t expect the book to explain why the war is happening; The Change War, as it is commonly called, simply exists. At no point does the novel specify which side is the antagonist in this particular conflict, only that the book’s protagonists are affiliated with the Spiders. Naturally, they perceive the Snakes to be the greatest threat the cosmos has ever known. The novel very loosely orbits around a dozen characters who reside within a Place. This particular Place is a combination bar, brothel and field hospital. Like all Places, it exists outside of conventional space-time, reasonably safe from the effects of temporal paradoxes, referred to in text as Change Winds. Leiber details further irrelevancies of Places, The Change War and the vagaries of time travel within many painfully dull pages of exposition.
The incessant world building might not be a problem were it not for the fact that the book’s first-person narrator, Greta, is an utterly shallow twit of a character who kills a reader’s ability to access any of the book’s characters. Since she spends most of the book expounding on the details of The Change War, we don’t even really learn that much about Greta. For example, why is she so smitten with Nazi solider recruited into The Change War from 1930s Germany? Greta’s descriptions of the other characters in the Place are similarly vacuous; the additional cast find their motivations and personalities explored in only the most trifling of manners. It’s truly unfortunate that a motley collection of humans from across history, and a few extraterrestrials for good measure, interact with each other with all the complexity that you would expect from an episode of Cheers. The only consolation to this narrative style is that the book contains at most three thimbles full of genuine plot. Since said plot is feels both forced and contrived, I suppose a tedious narrator is not that much of a travesty, rather another annoyance in a book full of annoyances.
Granted the book does have a few moments where it is genuinely clever. One such moment is seen when an “Amazon” warrior from Crete recounts, in metered verse, a recent time travel mission that saw the destruction of her homeland. Good on Mr. Leiber for spending the extra time to compose his pointless exposition in poetic form. Of course those bonus points are negated as other characters shove each other in the arm and point out that the Amazon is speaking in metered verse. Give the reader an ounce of credit and assume that they will be able to tell the difference between spoken poetry and Greta’s narrations, which never rise above the sophistication of a common scullery maid. Other rare moments of insight are accompanied by the whimper of a reader dying inside as avenues for narrative depth are cordoned off by pointless exposition.
I can only assume that this book earned its place in the annals of Science Fiction fame by doing a few things which would have been groundbreaking in 1958. Vapid as she may appear – there is the occasional glimmer of hope that Greta isn’t as banal as she sounds – The Big Time has an unapologetic and sexually liberated female protagonist. For that reason alone, The Big Time likely ruffled a few feathers. The other thing that I assume helped this book stand out is that it deals with time travel in a grown up fashion. Leiber played with paradoxes in the same way a composer manipulates an orchestra. One paradox on its own might be harmless, but a series of carefully timed paradoxes has wide reaching consequences that produce an order of sorts, just as multiple instruments playing similar but slightly divergent pieces of music produce harmonies. Prior to this novel, I can’t think of a lot of fiction that played with time in a similar fashion.
As a book meant to entertain me on a Sunday afternoon, The Big Time is a dismal failure. Its saving grace is that as a piece of literature meant for critical dissection, it is not without some merit.
As a novel: -3
As a text for deconstruction and analysis: +2.5