Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review - The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

Short review: The Change War between the Snakes and Spiders rages through all of time and space and weary demons find that danger follows them even when they try to rest.

Three soldiers stop by
Then three more come for a rest
Then we talk treason

Full review: After failing to hand out a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1957, the voters stepped up and handed the 1958 award to Fritz Leiber's short novel The Big Time. The novel, detailing the events in "The Place", a rest stop for weary soldiers participating in the Cosmos-wide "Change War" that rages through all of time and space as the alien Spiders and Snakes vie to control the ultimate outcome of history, is a study in paradoxes. A war story about survival told by a dead noncombatant, The Big Time is about a war as large as the entirety of space and time that takes place in a space smaller than your typical bar and grill over a period of a couple of hours. It is a time-travel story in which no one ever travels through time, and a locked door mystery in which the door is only locked when the crime has been committed.

The basic background of the book is fairly straightforward: two factions are vying through time and space for control of the outcome to be determined at the end of time. These factions are never seen and are merely referred to by the monikers "Snakes" and "Spiders", and even those names are just labels and no one knows if they are in any way accurate descriptions of the two sides. The characters in the story all work for the Spiders, who are presumed to be the "good" side, although there is no way for either the characters or the reader to really know. The Spiders, and presumably the Snakes, recruit their soldiers by whisking away people on death's door and offering them a place in their ranks as an alternative to dying. Once a recruit accepts, they become an immortal "demon" and taken away to "The Big Time", where they exist outside of the normal flow of time and immune to the alterations of history that are engendered by the Change War. The difficulty both sides face in waging the Change War is that time is "sticky", observing the Law of Conservation of Time. In other words, even if you make changes in time, it will tend to converge back to its original outcome, so any changes one makes have to be reinforced many times to make them permanent, or else history will eventually simply drift back to the original (presumably undesirable) end. As a result, soldiers are sent out on mission after mission in order to make sure that the their tinkering with the world will hold, and they experience dozens upon dozens of realities - and we, who are not demons from the Big Time do as well, but as memories or shadows that we can't quite place, an effect which is used to explain phenomena such as déjà vu and precognition.

Once recruited, a demon becomes either a soldier to be sent on missions to try to bend the flow of time to the outcome desired by the Spiders, or an entertainer assigned to one of the out of time rest areas where the soldiers recuperate between missions. The story of The Big Time takes place in one of these rest areas and is told from the perspective of entertainer Greta Forzane, whose job appears to be serving food and drinks, dancing, singing, and providing other more personal services to the soldiers who drop in. And this perspective gives the story a somewhat surreal quality: although Forzane is a demon, and has an understanding of the Change War, she has never experienced it directly, having spent most of her time since her "death" in the same confined space waiting for those who are doing the real fighting to come back. One element more or less unremarked upon in the story is the bleak nature of the lives of the entertainers in the story. While the soldiers presumably undergo harrowing experiences on their missions to the outside world, they at least get to do different things while enjoying a change of scenery when they are carrying out their orders. The entertainers, on the other hand, spend all of their time in a confined space and do essentially the same thing over and over again. And because they are effectively immortal, they can look forward to repeating this dreary routine until the heat death of the universe. From a certain perspective, this seems like a fate worse than death, and it is this realization that makes the actions that precipitate the central crisis of the book understandable.

And the Spiders' method of recruitment makes for some strange bedfellows: the three "hussars" who show up consist of Mark - a former Roman soldier, Bruce - a British casualty from Passchendale who fancies himself a poet, and Erich - a brutish Nazi officer from a Third Reich that had conquered the United States. Later, an even more unlikely trio shows up consisting of a female warrior from ancient Minos, an alien from an even more ancient version of Earth's moon, and another alien from our distant future. But when the reader gets the snippets of information they mention when they are swapping soldier tales of poisoning Churchill and Cleopatra or kidnapping infant Einstein, one starts to wonder if the Spiders' goals are beneficial for humanity. And at that point, one comes to the realization that in a war that spans time and space,  what might be required for the goals of the Spiders to come to fruition (even if they are ultimately benign) could be a policy that consigns some or all of humanity to live under terrible regimes, or that requires the learning and achievements of figures such as Plato or Kepler should be erased from history's record. Despite the importance to humans of the events that affect humanity, the lesson given by the existence of the Lunan Ilhilihis is that everything we hold dear is both ephemeral and a matter of trivial importance of the Spiders. We are, in effect, a minor sideshow in a minor theater of a great war.

Which is why, when what appears to be one of the most thoughtful characters begins to question his role and the role of the others in "The Place", the paranoia displayed by the others in the story seems vastly overblown. When Bruce begins to question the place the soldiers and entertainers in the story hold in the war, several of the others find his comments treasonous and begin to fear retribution from their Spider masters. But this fear seems quite misplaced, as it seems likely that their Spider masters pay almost no attention to their doings in the war. But because their actions are important to the characters in the story, they assume they must be important to their commanders. It is this sense of self-importance that leads to the crisis that creates the overt conflict in the book. And although the resolution of the conflict is interesting and satisfying, it seems as though that the story is just a framework to hang the real point upon - which seems to be reinforced when, after being out of contact with the outside world for a while, the denizens of 'the Place" are returned to contact with the rest of the Big Time, and no one outside their little circle seems to notice. The deafening silence from the Spiders and the Snakes leads one to begin to wonder if there is any substance to the Change War at all. Though this question is never spoken directly, it seems possible that the War may simply be a hellish afterlife that the unfortunates in the story have been consigned to. Or perhaps it is all true and the Spiders and Snakes are fighting a brutal battle for control of the outcome of history. But the characters have no way of knowing what is true and what is not, so they must simply struggle on as best they can as if what they believe to be true is actually true.

And it is this layering that makes this book a worthy Hugo winner. Although the book has some flaws - much of it is written in fairly stylized language and it contains the healthy dose of the casual sexism that is typically on display in so many books written in the 1950s and earlier - the direct story, amounting to a well-written locked door mystery, and the underlying story, concerning the nature of reality and loyalty, are both gripping and thought-provoking. With a time travel story full of mystery and ambiguity, The Big Time is a must read for any science fiction fan.

1956 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
1959 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

1956 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: Exploration Team by Murray Leinster (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)
1959 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

What are the Hugo Awards?

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novel
List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette

1958 Hugo Award Nominees

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