The Big Time is not the small time.
I forgot this one has some World War One content, so I’ll be returning to it at some point for my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.
A retro review from August 5, 2010.
Review: The Big Time, Fritz Leiber, 1958.
Say you’re about to die in a few minutes, maybe, like our narrator Greta Forzane, after ten minutes of being raped to death by soldiers of a Third Reich that goes from the salt mines of Siberia to the cornfields of Iowa. And then you are offered an opportunity to escape your fate – an opportunity no one ever refuses. Of course, you have to enroll with the Spiders or the Snakes, become a Demon in their eternal Change War, a vast cosmic struggle across millions of years to change history to … well, no one is really sure what the war’s point is. You just serve your side as a Soldier or an Entertainer.
Greta’s an Entertainer, one of the staff in the Place, a zone outside of regular time and space, an R&R stop for the Soldiers back from missions to terminate the Roman Empire early, nuke Ancient Crete, or kidnap a baby Einstein. History is a stubborn, hard thing to change. And, if you succeed, there’s always the blowback of the Change Winds which may you take you into nonexistence.
Part party girl, part song and dance trouper, part sex therapist and comfort woman, she has a thing for Sid, former contemporary of Shakespeare – when duty doesn’t have her attending to Nazi soldier boyfriend Erich. Her co-workers are Beau, formerly of a Great South that never knew Grant’s gunboats on the Mississippi, and Doc, a drunken, derelict medical officer, formerly of a Nazi occupied Czarist Russia. And then there’s Maud from the 23rd Century and New Girl who seems destined to off herself in many versions of the early 20th century – until recruited.
Enter three soldiers – a Nazi, a Roman, and a casualty of Passchendaele – back from a botched mission. New Girl falls for the latter, a poet who starts suggesting something suspiciously like rebellion against their Spider masters. And then a distress call, a rescue mission for three other Soldiers – two of them aliens.
In 160 pages of story, Leiber creates and explains a world of Demons, Ghostgirls, Doublegangers, and Zombies, throws out a bunch of alternate histories, convincingly shows the psychology of those who are comfortable with the chaos of the Change War, and, ripped from normal lives, what they most miss.
Leiber puts his theatrical experience to good use. With only nine characters, one setting, and offstage action related in convincing, if sometimes poetic, dialogue, this is one classic that lives up to its billing. In fact, it’s one of those rare science fiction classics that history and technological progress have not dated, not even a bit.
The book comes with an informative introduction by Leiber about the creation of the novel and the Change War series – though this story stands entirely on its own and an afterword by Robert Thurston on the theatrical elements of the novel.