conceptual fiction
The Big Time

by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery &
suspense
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.   

Related Stories
Fritz Leiber at 100
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber
The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

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.  
Back to the home page
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction and
its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.