Mining the Genre Asteroid: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

17 Oct

The Big Time

Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.

The Snakes and the Spiders continually alter and change history in an unclear conflict in order to control the flow of human history. Soldiers from ghostly timelines that have been destroyed are recruited to change history again and again until they make the history where one of these two forces will be triumphant. Russian soldiers from a Czarist American Empire can fight alongside warriors from the Khanate of Spain and Confederate soldiers from World War II. All of them were snatched up at the time of their death, and now fight for a new purpose. Help the Russians defeat Napoleon’s Grand Army. Aid the Persians at Marathon to defeat those perfidious Greeks. Push the results of a battle between the Indian Malwa Empire and the Chinese Sui Dynasty. Change the timeline again and again, everywhere,  to win once and for all and with the mass of humanity none the wiser. And other species, too, far-future Venusians and far-past inhabitants of the Moon also play roles in changing history.

Between battles in The Change War, though, soldiers need a location outside of space and time, unaffected by what the War does,  to recuperate and prepare themselves for the next conflict.  The Place is such a location for soldiers on the side of The Spiders. A motley set of warriors from very different original backgrounds are currently recovering there. There’s drink, there’s companionship of the opposite sex, there is healing, there is brief rest.

However, all is not placid in The Place. These very different warriors do not always get along very well. Old grudges from now destroyed countries and timelines put those in The Place at odds with each other. There may be one of those sneaky Snake spies among the staff or the warriors in The Place.  Add in a locked room mystery and (most ironically) a race against time before The Place and all in it is destroyed.

I present to you The Big Time.

I could and eventually will spend a month of columns on Fritz Leiber’s wide oeuvre of work. While best known and best remembered for his sword and sorcery in Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, his reach extends much farther. Leiber’s influence ranges from literary criticism of H.P. Lovecraft, to proto-urban fantasy, and his science fiction stories. The influence of Leiber on multiple strands of science fiction and fantasy cannot be underestimated.

Fritz Leiber was the child of two Shakespearean actors.  One can think of The Big Time as his attempt to do a Shakespeare play as a novel. While the subject matter does not sound immediately Shakespearean, the setup and style definitely are. The Place is an enclosed, closed space, containing a limited set of characters, allusions and references that sketch out and imply a world far beyond the space that we actually see.   One can think of it as a large theater (and the dimensions of the Place are, roughly, that of a large theater house). The novel is heavy on dialogue and a lot of wordplay,  and short on action.  There is even a character from the ancient past who only speaks in meter.  Another character is a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and knew him. I am not aware of a theatrical adaptation of The Big Time, but I would not be surprised if someone tried it.

And what characters these are. Drawn from timelines and worlds long gone, the characters are complicated, damaged, broken, and conflicted. The narrator, Greta, killed in a Nazi invasion of Chicago in one timeline falls into a fraught, violent, complicated relationship with a Nazi officer who died in a battle in Norway in a different timeline. Or at least this version of him, saved by the Spiders for The Change War,  died there. Doppelgangers and doubles of the soldiers and staff might and do exist out there.

There is plenty of alternate history and time travel stories written since Leiber’s of course. The Big Time. But even today, it’s an alternate history and time travel novel that few have dared to imitate (I can think of only a bare handful of examples). I first read The Big Time at the height of my fascination with alternate history and found it to be sui generis. Leiber thought about writing a sequel, but sadly did not do so before his death.  However, there are a few Change War short stories out there I have not yet managed to track down and read.

Having entered the Public Domain, The Big Time is widely available, including most recently in the Gary K Wolfe edited  LOA (Library of America) American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s box set.

If the aforementioned box set  is too expensive, Project Gutenberg has a decently edited free edition for you to download and read. If you have any interest in Leiber’s work, or Alternate History, I encourage you to do so.

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