Yesterday I read the super short and super intense The Big Time by Fritz Lieber, winner of the 1958 Hugo for Best Novel. I’m still trying to process it, but I also want to get some of my thoughts down here before I forget everything that happened in those 110 pages. (According to LibraryThing anyway, I was reading the Kindle version; no actual pages.)
The Big Time is told in first person by 29-year-old Greta Forzane. Greta is a Demon and Entertainer for the Spiders during the Change War. It seems that there is a war raging throughout time between the Spiders and the Snakes. Both sides travel through time and change events in the hope that their side will eventually come out the victor:
Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me. (Kindle Location 12)
Demons are people who were plucked out of their own times, (kind of) to act as Soldiers and Entertainers. Entertainers exist in Places in the Void, which is the nothingness between times in the cosmos. Greta is a part of a six-member Place. Sid, an Elizabethan poet who knew Shakespeare, is the pilot. Beauregard (Beau), an antebellum gambler, is the co-pilot and piano player. Doc, whose job is self-evident, is a Russian drunk. Maud, a 50-year-old party girl hails from the 23rd century where they have technology that keeps her looking and acting like a teenager. Lili, the newest, was a flapper. Greta herself is from Chicago in what must be the late-40s or early-50s, though it’s never really specified. Their job is to provide comfort and relaxation (and some occasional first aid) to Soldiers coming back to the Void between missions.
The Place is operated by two Maintainers. The Major Maintainer allows them to hold their place or navigate within the Void. The Minor Maintainer controls the gravity (and one assumes other life-support systems) within various sectors of the Place. The Place itself is broken into a variety of areas for entertainment. There’s an Art Gallery, a Bar, a Kitchen, and a Surgery, among others. Within the Surgery is an apparatus called the Inverser, which allows doctors to turn patients inside out (more or less) to operate without cutting them open.
The story kicks off when the Place picks up 3 Soldiers who were just trying to kidnap the baby Einstein back from the Snakes in Russia. Soldiers seems to be chosen from people who performed the same function in life, so this group consists of Mark (Marcus) a 2nd Century Roman; Bruce, a British World War I soldier; and Erich, a Nazi commandant. Bruce and Erich are in the midst of an argument that results in a duel. With swords. Bruce is new to the Change War and is upset by the whole idea of Changing history:
“Here’s yet another example. To beat Russia, the Spiders kept England and America out of World War Two, thereby ensuring a German invasion of the New World and creating a Nazi empire stretching from the salt mines of Siberia to the plantations of Iowa, from Nizhni Novgorod to Kansas City!” (Kindle Location 226)
The argument is ultimately resolved when it turns out that Lili was a fan of Bruce’s poetry when they were both alive, in fact, Lili has been in love with him from afar for a very long time. Shortly thereafter, they receive a strange S.O.S. and the final three members of the party arrive; Kaby, a Cretan; Illy, a furry, tentacled Lunan from a billion years before; and Sevensee, a Venusian satyr from a billion years in the future. They bring with them an atomic bomb which Erich, Mark and Bruce are supposed to set off in Ancient Alexandria. This announcement pretty much kicks everything into high gear. Bruce begins agitating for peace, suggesting that they travel to other Places, both Spider and Snake, and try to bring an end to hostilities. Meanwhile, Erich advocates the continuation of the war. At some point during the debate, the Major Maintainer is switched to Invert (removing the Place from access to the Cosmos) and disappears. Chaos ensues. Accusations abound. And the bomb is activated.
In the end, this story seemed to be a variety of things all at once. It’s a study of the difference between men and women; between Soldiers and Entertainers; between Past and Future. How well it explores these themes is up for debate. I tend to have trouble with stories that have too much substance and not enough form and I’d venture this story falls into that category. While there’s a coherent plot to be found, I’m not sure that it does all that much to advance the ultimate theme Lieber seems to want to get across of evolution and change. When you reach the final thesis statement, it’s difficult to discern exactly where it came from, which is why I say I continue to ruminate on the story as a whole. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself and see if you feel different.
Bechdel Score: 2.5 out of 3; I’m giving it a half-point because, while the women to talk to each other and it’s never overtly about a man, there’s a pervasive undercurrent of misogyny throughout the story that seems to say that, for women, everything revolves around their feelings for men. I just couldn’t bring myself to give it full marks.