The Big Time

by Fritz Leiber

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1958
Printing: June 1982
ISBN: 0-441-06223-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 184

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In an indefinite place outside of time, the soldiers fighting a huge battle across all of history meet to rest, heal from the war, enjoy themselves, and wait for their next assignment. None of them really understand the war that they're fighting, between the mysterious Spiders and Snakes. They just know what side they're on, and that they are among the special few who can handle being separated from their timeline and acting outside of time.

The Big Time feels a bit odd as a novel because it's set like a play. The writing fits a novel, with a first-person perspective and a distinct narrative voice, but the entire book takes place on one stage. It's an odd choice, given that the strength of the book is in the idea of a time war where the past is constantly changing and the characters could be eliminated by a twist of history at any moment. This is an idea with legs, as has since been shown by such people as Fred Saberhagen and Poul Anderson, but here it's only shown in exposition. Since none of the actual fighting happens in this isolated refuge, we only hear about the plots, hear second-hand stories of the action, and see characters from different timelines thrown together.

To pull off this sort of limited setting, the book has to have more than a good idea. It has to be very strong on character and dialog, and develop dramatic tension from the character interactions rather than from the limited environment. This doesn't really happen. Leiber does set up some character conflict, a mystery, and some danger, but the whole affair seems minor compared to the war that it's supposedly part of. I never cared enough about any of the characters, even the brash and talkative narrator, to really get involved in the book.

Mostly, I was vaguely confused. There's a lot of dialog, some slang, a lot of banter, and a lot of period dialect, and I stumbled through the first half of the book trying to keep track of what was going on, what the characters cared about, and who they all were. For such a short book in such a limited stage, Leiber introduces quite a lot of characters and keeps all of them wandering about the story, and while they're all distinct, it's a lot to keep track of. I think he could have lost two or three easily and had a better, more comprehensible story.

Even with less confusion, though, there wouldn't be very much here. The plot is simple, the setting limited, and the character interactions fairly superficial. I think Leiber was aiming for light and fun more than for a serious exploration of the emotions of a time war (since whether to use an atomic bomb is the heaviest decision faced and that one is largely defused by the slapstick of its arming device), but without humor, memorable characters, or emotional drama, there just wasn't anything to hold my attention. After the novelty of characters from all over history being thrown together, there isn't much else here.

It's a short book and a fast read, and there are some half-way interesting aliens. There's some subtlety to the ending, but I couldn't be bothered to figure it out completely; I just didn't care enough. It's probably one of the earliest examples of its particular sub-genre of time travel stories, but there isn't much here to recommend.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-07-21

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21