conceptual fiction
The Big Time

by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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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
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.  
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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Little, Big

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Camp Concentration

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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