Science fiction novel by Fritz Leiber; winner of the 1958 Hugo Award.

The Big Time is quite short and can easily be read in a single evening. That's probably a good thing, since the ending is vaguely dissatisfying and I wouldn't want to wade through several hundred pages of plot to reach it. By 1958 SF standards, it most certainly was a good book, and it's still readable, but to a modern reader accustomed to grand, epic tales and familiar with recent scientific developments that render the book's central theme somewhat iffy, it really isn't all that impressive.

The story's set in the "Big Time," a higher dimensional timestream that apparently proceeds linearly, though its inhabitants are recruited from just about everywhere in our spacetime. There is a war (there is always a war) between the mysterious Spiders and Snakes. It is a Change War, emphasis on the capital "C" as opposed to the puny, lower-case changes we ordinary mortals experience, because it's bigger and more important and all of history and the ultimate fate of the universe rest on its outcome. Or so they say.

The war's participants are known as Demons. They're Resurrected from their lifelines into the Big Time, though they might continue to live for years afterward along several different histories in ordinary spacetime as Zombies. Those who can withstand the physical rigors of combat and the mental strain of time travel and sundry other, unspeakable things become Soldiers, sent off to strategic points throughout history to alter it. Those who cannot, or whose skills are specialized in other areas, become Entertainers, dispensing food and drink and music and medical treatment and sexual favors to the wounded and weary Soldiers in places called, well, Places, which exist within the Void, shielded from the deadly Change Winds.

But what we would call the butterfly effect doesn't seem to apply here. There's a Law of Conservation of Reality in effect, and capital-C Change requires a lot of work. Changing history isn't as easy as sneezing on a dinosaur, as many SF storytellers would have you believe; there's a lot of built-in inertia in the way things are. The Winds caused by the Spiders' and Snakes' meddling blow faster than time throughout history, always following the path of least resistance, and the Demons have the unique capacity to remember histories that no longer are.

Unfortunately, the story never really takes the reader deeply into the implications of all this. It's set entirely in a Place operated by the Spiders, told from the perspective of a twenty-nine year old flapper from early 20th-century Chicago. We get to meet a Nazi commandant, a poetic contemporary of Shakespeare, a fearsome ancient Cretan warrior-woman who speaks in perfect meter (as all the ancients did, Homer was nothing extraordinary) and a tentacled alien from the billion year old Lunar civilization that annihilated itself with nuclear weapons before our own ancestors had become so much as multicellular. All these odd characters make for some excellent drama, and Leiber's got the dialogue down pat, but the overall effect leaves something to be desired. No one from the enemy camp even makes an appearance. The story is told from within a small, isolated station floating around a great, spectacular cosmos that the author only hints at. Any reader with even a modicum of curiosity is demanding more, but Leiber never shows us more than a tiny fragment. He built a fascinating universe, gave his readers tantalizing hints of it, and proceeded to write 130 pages of human drama. There are just too many ideas left hanging here; not even the best author could fit more than a few of them into such a short novel whose focus is on dialogue anyway. The ending, which I won't spoil for you, might have been somewhat revelatory to the 1958 reader, but now it seems almost a cop-out.

The Big Time might be a passable way to spend a few lazy hours. I found my copy at a yard sale and paid fifty cents for it; I wouldn't recommend spending any more than that.

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