The Big Time
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
SFWA Grand Master Fritz Leiber is primarily known for his fantasy and horror stories, but two of his science fiction novels won Hugos, this being the first. I recall starting this book years ago, but set it aside because I didn't think it was very good. Now that I've committed to reviewing all the Hugo and Nebula winning novels I had to finish it this time. I've enjoyed quite a few of his books over the years, but this is not one of them. Not only is it a weak story, badly written, I don't even know why it was eligible for the Hugo it won in 1958. Normally, the Hugo is for work produced in the previous calendar year, but The Big Time didn't see print until March of '58, in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, with the conclusion appearing the following month. I know that magazines hit newstands, and are mailed to subscribers, earlier than their stated date, so I guess that March issue might have been seen by December of '57, but more likely not until January. When I was building the Hugo/Nebula pages the only information for the years 1953-58 was the winners, nothing about other nominees, and that is still the case everywhere I check. I just did a search for other novels from 1957 and found quite a few I would have voted for over this one, including Asimov's The Naked Sun, Clarke's The Deep Range, Dick's Eye in the Sky, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, just to name a few any reader of classic SF should be familiar with. I suppose this was a time before the paperback book boom took over, and the magazines were still the primary source of reading for the fans. This novel didn't see paperback publication until 1961.
It does feature an interesting premise, a group of soldiers plucked out of their own timelines, tasked with waging the Change War throughout the ages. Unfortunately, the execution is weak. Leiber did write other stories in this sequence, perhaps as many as twelve more, depending on which editor's list you use. It's possible I've read some of those in either anthologies or magazines, but I can't recall now. Maybe a few of them give details on some of the campaigns and battles, but not this book. All of the action occurs in The Place, an area in a sidewise dimension from reality, where the soldiers recuperate between their excursions into time. When I say action, in this case I mean mostly dialog, as the soldiers and the support staff discuss their campaigns, what history they have changed, what they may have to change next, plus the fact they don't know much about the forces that direct them. Their nominal superiors are known as the "Spiders," their opposition the "Snakes," but whether they're human or alien no one seems to know. There are other campaigns being waged in other solar systems, even other galaxies, but the ultimate goal is also unknown.
The dialog varies from flowery prose from a person from Renaissance Europe, to what I guess Leiber felt was "contemporary" slang, although that might have sounded dated even then. There's also a gentleman from the antebellum South, a 1st Century Roman and a woman from Crete from around the same era, as well as a couple from the early 20th Century, circa the first World War. Inexplicably, there are also a couple of aliens, one from Mars, another from Venus. This makes for some awkward exchanges, with not suprisingly several misunderstandings. What little plot there is revolves around one person's assertion that they should refuse any future assignments, plus the disappearance of the controls (the Major Maintainer) of The Place, which might mean they are stranded there forever. Lots of back and forth questioning and accusations, searching for the Maintainer, plus panic due to a possible nuclear device being activated. In the end, the controls are found, the bomb is disarmed, everything seems back to "normal," a return to the staus quo, meaning once more into the breach, fighting the Change War they still don't understand. Even the one who wanted to defy their orders seems to accept their inevitable fate.
I do not recommend this book, but for anyone who doesn't want to take my word for it, you can get it for free. The first link I have in the Overview column is for a Print-On-Demand copy, but I'm not sure that's accurate information, since the image on that page is generic and has no connection to the book. Amazon's listing for a hardcover is entirely too expensive, but you can get a free Kindle file, or if you have a different e-reader, use the link to Project Gutenberg, which offers multiple formats. If you want a cheap paperback, search amazon's Marketplace Sellers, ebay or bookfinder.com. It's very short, just barely exceeding the novel minimum of 40,000 words, but I'd bet most people won't read even half that much. Just because something is considered a "classic," even if it won awards, it's no guarantee it's any good. I've already started on Leiber's second Hugo-winner, and while it has it's own set of problems, it's much better than The Big Time. More on that soon.
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