I finished The Big Time by Fritz Leiber in a day and a half. I just sped through this book! Well, I am going to say right now at the beginning of this review: this is not a book everyone can appreciate. I wholeheartedly believe to get the five-star rating (that I am bestowing on this novel), you have to be partially insane. You have to be able to see the absurdity in things, you have to have a big and strong imagination, and you have to have wit in spades. Now, I do not make any claims regarding whether the converse is true, i.e. if you do not like it, it is because you have no wit/imagination, etc. However, I do think if you take everything seriously and have little or no sense of humor, you will really have a ranting raving “review” to write if you read this book!
The Big Time was first published in 1958. I read the ACE 1982 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover. Whole volumes have been written on the author – he was an interesting fellow with ups and downs and excitements galore. Nevertheless, this is the first work I have read by him. He was a preacher, an actor, an alcoholic, and a chessman. He was supposedly influenced by the famous authors of the early 1900s, including H. P. Lovecraft (well, who wasn’t?). The Big Time reads a lot like how one might expect an author with this resume to write. And for a whole mess of readers out there – it is uncomfortable and disappointing.
There is a very short introduction to this novel written by the author and a bit of a longer afterword (previously the 1976 introduction to this story) by Robert Thurston. Without these two guideposts, I am not sure I would have made it through the book. If your edition does not have these bits, good luck!
I started reading this novel and I was confused; the thing is jumbled and silly. Everything – every word – seems completely random. It seem to start in media res, but who can tell? And the narrator – how I hated the narrator with an immense and fiery wrath! It seemed the narrator was unfocused, dumb as a brick, and personified the worst elements of certain stereotypes. Now, do not get me wrong – I have read plenty of “in media res” novels. Also, I am relatively okay with things that are zany and oblique. But this!!! This was atrocious and I very nearly put the book into the “Going to Thrift Store Pile.” If it weren’t for the guideposts of the introduction and the afterword, I swear I would not have made it through.
The characters number twelve. Each one is relatively significant/important to the plot of the book. Greta is the main character and narrator. She is the one that immediately induced violent repulsed reactions in me. By the end of the novel, I am cheering for her and I think she is a hoot-and-a-half. Complete turnarounds for characters, like this, are remarkably rare.
The back of the book (and the description found in many places online) reads: This is war: The biggest, longest war that anyone could imagine. The soldiers are recruited at the moment of death to fight through all of time. The goal is to change the past, and insure victory in the future. The Change Winds are blowing. Welcome to the Big Time. And from this – I think the reader may expect a war story? Or a commentary on warfare? Or even a unique (and fun) concept which puts a variety of soldiers from a variety of eras onto the battlefield at once. . . But this is a key problem; the reader should not believe the hype! Sure, that is the overall framework of this novel, but only as a vague “background.”
As I read along, I kept wondering about the Snakes and the Spiders (the two alleged sides of the war). When are we going to learn about them? What are they like? Why are they doing this? What strategies do they use? What side do we wish we were on? All of these questions and more I found myself asking and never coming upon the answers. So, there is this really aggravated curiosity that was being developed and though I was hating the book, I kept reading (thankfully!). I suspect most readers stop at this point because they get too frustrated.
Then suddenly, I found pieces falling into place (and after reading this novel, I do want to always capitalize “Place”). And I started to care about the characters and the storyline. Not everything was roses and smiles, but I was doing a lot better and somehow Greta had wormed her way into my heart and I was appreciating her random and silly exclamations, outbursts, and sarcasm.
Except Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently. I decided they were the kind of love that makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. – pg. 64, Chapter 6
Greta’s narration is really a stream of consciousness. For better or worse, though, she isn’t one of the great minds of the kosmos. She’s an Entertainer, which in this novel is something like a therapist, nurse, call-girl, and waitress. So, she interrupts herself, uses slang, makes silly exclamations, and loses her train of thought.
Somehow (or by the sheer magic of insanity + genius) the storyline moves along. Bruce Marchant, on page 72, jumps up onto the bartop and begins a rousing speech that both questions the premise of the whole novel, and also causes turmoil among each and every character. Leiber makes the character do this by a simple prop from earlier in the book: a black glove from Chapter Two. So what seemed extremely random earlier, is now connecting characters and plotline and I became a fully-engaged reader.
The rousing speech causes the characters to choose sides. Presumably, all the characters are on the army of the Spiders…. now they have to “willingly” choose to be on Bruce’s side or the militant’s side. And each side has its own motives to consider. There is tension and fighting and surprises. Finally, the story actually turns into a sort of mystery. The characters and I are all trying to solve a mystery. The tension is eased here and there by the now-amusing Greta. She has a helluva role to play in the novel, besides just narrate away.
“Here it comes,” I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything, on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally stylized for me, the horror with my name on it. I wasn’t going to be allowed to blow up peacefully. They weren’t satisfied with an A-bomb. They had to write my private hell into the script. – pg. 142, Chapter 14
The resolution is interesting and fun. It also seems to work out alright for each character. The last chapter allows a brief return to a deeper speculation as to what The Big Time is and what is going on with this Change War and whatnot with the Spiders vs. Snakes. I feel it works for those readers who simply cannot let go of the idea that that is what the novel is about. But for me, it was inconsequential. Not bad, just not needed.
This novel is weird and has weird elements – things that made me truly think that only an insane person could come up with them. And then the idea of squashing all of this in an outside-of-time/space war? With a spare number of distinct characters? Genius. And insane. This novel, over many I have read, walks the perfect line between genius and insanity. It also presents a slew of concepts to toy around with as far as space/time/zombies. If you like time travel stories or novels wherein “time is out of joint,” this is for you. So fans of PKD and Douglas Adams will love this. As in PKD (Cp. UBIK) not every artefact is explained – if you need it explained, you might as well read a different book. I loved this because I was both amused and impressed. Be advised, not all readers will stomach this – but if you make the attempt, just keep reading!