The Big Time (1958) by Fritz Leiber

‘This war is the Change War, a war of time travelers–in fact, our private name for being in this war is being on the Big Time.’

 

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Artwork by Hoot von Zitzewitz

Fritz Leiber’s Hugo Best Novel winner The Big Time is sixty years old. Have you heard of it? I’ve had this on my TBR list for a couple of years and was inspired to read it by the Little Red Reviewer. She holds a Vintage Science Fiction Month reading event every January, and this was my choice for it.

One of the questions she has asked Vintage SF Month participants is: “Why did you choose to read a vintage title?” It’s an important question. I was looking through my reviews from last year and was shocked to find that I had only read two SF titles written before 1980: The Dispossessed and The Ginger Star. Apart from simply wanting to read more vintage titles this year, I want to see how well these stories stand up today. Vintage SF can offer readers a window into the past but it’s fair to say that they often age poorly. When we read them with modern eyes, we need to be aware of the time period they were conceived in.


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Artwork by Jack Woolhiser

The Big Time is a short book. It’s written in the first person and narrated by Greta, an Entertainer who works in The Place. The Place acts as a kind of rest-stop for the soldiers fighting in the Change War. They go there to spend some relaxation time and briefly escape from the never-ending war. The Entertainers offer release and recuperation through various means including sex, music and booze. They also act as nurses, therapists, and surrogate mothers/sisters if needed.

‘Entertainment is our business and we give them a bang-up time and send them staggering happily back into action,’

The Change War has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Soldiers are taken from any and all time periods, thus you might have a warrior from Ancient Rome fighting alongside a British soldier from the First World War. These soldiers are given the option to be removed from their original timelines when facing certain death. If they agree, they must join the Change War and fight for either the Spiders or the Snakes. Greta’s sympathies appear to lie with the Spiders though it is never made clear exactly who the two factions are or who is controlling them.

“Spiders and Snakes. What are our masters, that we give them names like that?”

It should be noted that The Big Time reads more like a stage play than a story. It has only one setting and contains a cast of characters who spend a lot of time talking. Aside from our narrator Greta, there are two other female Entertainers: Maud and Lili. Sid seems to be in charge of The Place. He enjoys speaking in verse and using language from Shakespeare’s time. Doc is an alcoholic medical officer who frequently lapses into Russian when he’s not falling off barstools. And Beau is from the American South.

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1976 Orbit / Futura edition. Artist unknown.

What plot there is comes with the arrival of three war-weary soldiers in search of some R&R. They are an intriguing mix of characters comprising a WWII Nazi, an English poet from WWI, and a Roman Legionnaire. (You can probably guess where the friction will lie.) Further on in the narrative, they are joined by two aliens and a female warrior from ancient Crete. Leiber has fun with this motley cast of characters, especially their interactions and monologues.

“I was more alive than I had been before, but it was the kind of life a corpse might get from unending electrical shocks and I couldn’t summon any purpose or hope.”

Add to this the threat of a ticking nuclear bomb and a second half which turns into a smart locked-room mystery and you have The Big Time. It’s different. It’s fun. It’s a little bit bonkers. I haven’t read many books from the 1950s but this one stands out. It demands your attention while reading it and will probably reward a second reading.

Recommended.

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9 thoughts on “The Big Time (1958) by Fritz Leiber

  1. this sounds right up my alley! i like characters getting pulled from different time periods, i like stories that take place at stations that everyone else is travelling through, and you had me at “bonkers”. Of Leiber’s work, i’ve only read a few of his Fahfherd and the Gray Mouser books, i’m interested to see what he does with science fiction.

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    • I’ve only read a couple of his Fahfherd and the Gray Mouser stories, too. I wasn’t aware of his scifi works but I had heard of The Spiders and The Snakes before. Now I know where they originated from. I hope you enjoy it if you read it:)

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  2. Pingback: VintageSciFi around the blogosphere | the Little Red Reviewer

  3. “It should be noted that The Big Time reads more like a stage play than a story” — this is definitely the feel I remember… It was more than a decade ago… and the reason why I still consider it a classic! It really was an odd read, and an enjoyable one (there are other short stories in the Change Wars sequence that I haven’t read yet should track down).

    It’s great seeing vintage reviews from you again! 🙂

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  4. A few comments:

    You write: “Sid seems to be in charge of The Place. He enjoys speaking in verse and using language from Shakespeare’s time…”. That would be because he is, in fact, from Shakespeare’s time. As you noted the warring sides in the Change War recruit their soldiers from all across history and from alternate histories as well.

    Leiber wrote a number of Change War stories, including one that is a direct sequel to “The Big Time”, titled “No Great Magic”. I recommend it.

    Fritz Leiber was very well versed in the theater and in the works of Shakespeare in particular. His father, Fritz Leiber, Sr., was a distinguished Shakespearan actor in the early 20th Century; both on stage and in the early days of the movies. As young man, Fritz Leiber, Jr. was an actor in his father’s touring stage company. He based his short story “Four Ghosts in Hamlet” on this experience.

    Fritz Leiber left us a great body of work. He was publishing from the late 1930s to the early 1990s; science fiction, sword and sorcery, horror, classic ghost stories and what would now be called urban fantasy. Pretty much anything of his is worth reading. Two novels that I would especially recommend are “The Silver Eggheads” a deliciously funny science fiction satire of the publishing business (a business that then, as now, offers a target rich environment to the satirist) and his dark urban fantasy “Our Lady of Darkness”. The latter is something of a roman a clef; the central character is an elderly science fiction writer (and recovering alcoholic) named Franz Ritter. Ritter lives alone in an apartment in a old building in San Francisco (as Leiber did in the last decades of his life). He finds himself becoming aware of a dangerous alternate reality. Clark Ashton Smith and Dashiell Hammett are off stage characters.

    One detail in “Our Lady of Darkness” that I particularly enjoy is a geographical one: a sinister hill called Corona Heights. Now, when I first read this book (in the 1970s when it was first published) I had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for some years and I was fairly familiar with the geography of San Francisco. I had never heard of Corona Heights and I assumed that Leiber had simply made it up for his story. It was twelve or fifteen years later and I was in the waiting room of a service station when I learned otherwise. Killing time until my car was ready, I was studying a large map of the San Francisco region. I was quite startled when I noticed a location marked “Corona Heights” in San Francisco. It gave me something of a grue. It was rather like driving down a freeway in New England and suddenly seeing a sign reading: “Innsmouth Exit. 6 Miles.”

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    • Thank you for your considered reply, Johnny. I enjoyed your personal story at the end. Our Lady of Darkness has piqued my curiosity. Also No Great Magic. I would love to watch a performance of The Big Time on stage!

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