In a famous quip, dramatist Anton Chekhov claimed that if a gun appears on the stage in Act One, it will be fired before the conclusion of the play. But what if an atomic bomb shows up in the drawing room at the beginning of the drama? Does it blow up or get defused?
This is one of the many quandaries Fritz Leiber dumps on his readers in his richly inventive novel The Big Time, winner of the Hugo award for best novel in 1958. This compact narrative is the place to start for those looking for an introduction to Leiber’s sci-fi work, which tends to be less well known than his fantasy (Conjure Wife) or adventure (Fafhrd and Gray Mouser) writings. Leiber’s trademark virtues —from the irrational exuberance of his imagination to the fanciful humor of his prose—pervade this odd tale of time travelers on a rest and re- creation break from the ardors of changing past, present and future.
The reference to Ibsen above is not inappropriate, since The Big Time reads more like a play than a conventional novel. Leiber observes the three unities—of time, place and action—that Aristotle’s prescribed for drama. The story could be staged with a single set and small cast. In temperament and tone, the work is more akin to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit or Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth, or even Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than to your usual sci-fi tale. Existentialist and absurdist elements appear from time and time, and occasionally threaten to take over the story.
Although The Big Time is about time travel, the story itself involves no chronological dislocation, and transpires over the course of a few hours. The setting is The Place, where soldiers in the Change War go for a break from the eternal conflict. The troops are a fanciful amalgam, typical of Leiber’s extravagance: this is a war in which every kind of soldier from Roman gladiator to Nazi stormtrooper (and including extraterrestrials) can figure as a combatant. Imagine the bar scene in Star Wars, but with a dose of world history added for good measure. At The Place, weary troops consort with Entertainers who treat battle fatigue with booze, love-making and piano music. Like any conscript, these off-duty soldiers trade gripes, jests, challenges and dares.
During my graduate studies at Oxford I grappled with the philosophy of time—a brain-numbing field full of arcane concepts and conceits. A typical exam question was “Could time run backward?” (The short answer is no—since the very time it took for time to run backward would need to run forward. Next question, please?) I wish I had read Leiber’s The Big Time back then, since it would have given me some ammunition with which to dazzle and confuse the professors. Leiber draws on Hegel, Darwin, Newton and other sources in constructing his own crazy quilt philosophy of time. Following his line of thinking is akin to working through a labyrinth, for example when the narrator tells us that “you can’t time travel through the time you time travel in when you time travel.” Elsewhere, Leiber postulates his Law of the Conservation of Reality, which holds that time travelers who go back in history to change the past will encounter enormous inertia and resistance. Events will change, but by the least amount necessary to accommodate the new inputs—hence anyone who wants to transform history by a meaningful amount will need to implement countless little changes in order to have a significant impact.
In Leiber’s novel, two opposed forces—the Spiders and the Snakes—are involved in just such a long-drawn-out conflict to change the past, and hence the present and future. The Spiders are on the side of the West, while the Snakes push to advance the interests of the East. Their troops are recruited from the full range of history, and their chosen battlefields are equally expansive. Yet the identities of the Spider and Snake leadership are uncertain, as are their motives. Our protagonists work on the side of the Spiders in defense of the West, but the soldiers are plagued with uncertainties and doubts, feeling that at best they are, in Leiber’s words, “defending bad against something worse.”
Despite the grand ambitions of the concepts involved, the plot line in The Big Time is tautly constructed. A small group of soldiers and entertainers participate in a heated debate over their individual and collective futures. Some want to start a mutiny, others are anxious to return to the battle as soon as possible, still others hope to retire into the comforts of private life—the allegiances and consensus shifting from page to page. But to give their interactions a little more zing, Leiber introduces an atomic bomb into the Place—a weapon supposedly destined for introduction into the past in an escalation of the Spider-versus-Snakes conflict. Wouldn't you know that some wiseacre sets off the bomb with a 30-minute delay? Perhaps with some teamwork the characters can defuse the bomb, but this will require a fast resolution of the multi-layered disagreements splintering the group.
There is much to enjoy about this novel. The premise is intriguing, and offers a relatively new angle on the hoary time travel trope. The characters are sharply drawn and their interactions full of sudden changes and sly surprises. But I especially like the dialogue, which veers from Shakespeare to slang, frequently peppered with German and Latin, and full of clever wordplay and bilingual puns. Those who think that science fiction is all concepts, with no stylish prose, will need to think again after reading this little gem. Yet, by the same token, those who insist that sci-fi be stuffed full of thought- provoking concepts will also find much to delight them in this classic work.