The Big Time by Fritz R. Leiber
Illustrated by Virgil Finlay
Published in 1958 in Galaxy Science Fiction
Try as I might, I was not able to keep my reflections from spoiling some parts of the ending this week so I apologize in advance.
Earlier this week I wrote on my blog, The Hugo Endurance Project, that the one of biggest obstacles to the popularity of Science Fiction literature is that, I think, people focus on what is right on the surface and miss everything that is actually interesting about science fiction. The Big Time is a great example of how this can happen.
This short and fast-paced novel begins in the middle of the “Change War,” in which two opposing factions, the Spiders and the Snakes have been at war throughout space and time. The Big Time is a lot like a locked-door mystery and is set in “The Place,” a kind of entertainment and rest area for soldiers who travel throughout billions of years of history (they call this being a part of The Big Time) on the “change winds.”
The main character, Greta (“29 and a party girl”), was one of a number of entertainers at The Place and she begins the story exuberant, playful and confident. Entertainers were, in my mind, somewhere between Geisha and nurse and they served to occupy the time of the change warriors in whatever way necessary. I immediately liked her for casual and care free tone. Also she was 29 and a party girl. What’s not to like about that?
Many reviews (recent reviews anyway) get stuck on discussing whether this book was written more like a novel or a play, whether there was any character development or how Leiber’s notion of time travel was so different than most. While those are worthwhile discussions, I think the absurdist elements mentioned in Ted Gioia’s review (conceptualfiction.com) are what made this book great, even when they’re rather heavy-handed.
The Conservation of Reality
The book really starts to come together with the Law of the Conservation of Reality. In the Change War, soldiers travelling on the change winds fight in real-time (The Small Time) wars for whatever cause is deemed important enough to influence, or else parallel to those wars, against other time travelers. Sometimes events are changed and people might die in their own time.
The effect of the Law of the Conservation of Reality is that history will make as few adjustments as possible to maintain equilibrium, and historical events rarely notice the death of single person or the alteration of some previously significant event. Though history resists change, if a person whose life or experiences are changed in Small Time, is eventually “resurrected” into The Big Time, their memories of their Small Time life or their attitudes will imperceptibly change. I was instantly hooked when Greta mused,
But sometimes I wonder if our memories are as good as we think they are and if the whole past wasn’t once entirely different from anything we remember, and we’ve forgotten that we forgot. - Chapter 3
Because Greta was an entertainer, permanently stationed in The Place, she was not aware of the events in the Change War and experiences these changes completely unguarded. What could be more devastating than to constantly feel that the events in your life were meaningless, not only to the ebb and flow of history, but to your own continued existence? For anyone trying to argue that there was no character development, you might notice that this marked the beginning of a rapid spiral into near perpetual existential crisis that dominated nearly the rest of the book.
“Voulez-vous vivre mademoiselle?”
At a younger age, I came to similar conclusions that existentialism and absurdism had on my own and without knowing it, completely by chance and without guidance, and it was terribly difficult. Once I started studying philosophy in college, I began to understand that this could be a position of power and as Camus believed, of freedom, instead of the crushing depression I experienced. I don’t believe The Big Time is this optimistic and if you can’t tell by now, I absolutely love a plot that deals in debilitating misery.
After the door to the Void was sealed shut and the maintainer of the Place (the devise that allowed them to stay connected to the outside world) was introverted, another inhabitant of the Place tells a long-winded (for this book anyway) story about how when she passed from Small Time to The Big Time, she did not want to go on living. After meeting her sweetheart in The Big Time though, she realized that her life had new meaning and encouraged the rest of the group to see things her way. She was almost categorically dismissed. Not even given a second thought. If you like sentimental love stories, this book will ruin you.
The collective mood of the group was declining and everyone was trying to make sense of what they’d been though. Greta was hoping for an easy answer, but knew it wasn’t there when she said,
It would be a wonderful philosophy to stand against the change winds. Also damn silly. I wondered if Mark really believed it. I wished I could. - Chapter 16
Greta knows that it is difficult “to love through it,” but she has no other alternative. I really felt her frustration. The idea of finding a way to cope with the proposition that the world does not love you can be soul crushing. I’ve been there. Near the end of the book, I was really worried that Greta wouldn’t be able to stand up to it for long and I imagined that she was on her way to debilitating depression. She’d lost faith in the leadership of both sides, didn’t understand the reason for the Change War any longer, began to think the Place was hell and felt her life was gradually losing meaning. And then it ends. It was a bit like the ending of the Sopranos. I Loved it.
You may not find Leiber’s answer satisfying, but you have to appreciate it when a story is crafted such that you really experience that misery as your own.
This book is much heavier than other reviews would have you believe. Indeed, I’m glad I finished early this week so that I could take a couple days to keeping running through this one. I have to say, its holding up to the scrutiny of time. This is what makes science fiction great. It’s excruciating and horrifying and fabulous.
As much as I enjoyed the spiraling misery, I don’t think I would really recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t have more than a passing interest in religion or philosophy. Needless to say, this book resonated with me, but it doesn’t have much mass appeal so approach this one with caution. While the style is very different, if you are the kind of person who enjoys Sartre and Camus, you probably will like this one.