Big Time, by Fritz Leiber, 1961 Ace Books D-491, 1961 cover artist Ed Emshwiller
This summer, I took a number of SF classics to the cabin to read. One was the Ace doubles version of Big Time by Fritz Leiber. I had read some of Leiber’s SF, Gather Darkness and A Specter is Haunting Texas but was more familiar with his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series and his role as one of the author’s who corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft. To Arkham and the Stars is a wonderful tribute to Lovecraft’s body of work and sure to be enjoyed by all Lovecraftians. I found his The Terror from the Depths a Lovecraft pastiche interminable. In reading about his career I was surprised to find out how successful and important he was in the field, he had received some 5 Hugos, 3 Nebula, and 3 World Fantasy Awards, and my count could be off. Big Time initially published in two parts in Galaxy Magazine in 1958 was one of his Hugo winners. It can be found on most lists of important SF works and was included in the Library of America’s Nine Classic Novels of the 1950’s.
A review by Neil Gaiman of Big Time for the Library of America can be found here
Big Time is part of Leiber’s linked stories of the Change War, a conflict in which the two sides, referred to as spiders and snakes, send agents through time to alter historic events in their favour. Big Time takes place entirely within a small space time bubble, The Place, which serves as a recuperation station for agent/soldiers working for the spiders. It is staffed by three men and three women who act as a combination of entertainers, prostitutes, and therapists for soldiers involved in the war. Leiber and his parents were all heavily involved in the theatre and many reviewers have noted that the small cast of characters, short duration of action, and limited setting make it feel very much like a stage play.
All the characters recruited for the war, soldiers and support staff alike, were approached at the time of death and offered a second life in the Change War. The action begins when three soldiers, Erich von Hohenwald, a Nazi, Bruce Merchant, a British soldier from Passchendaele, and Mark, a Roman enter the facility. The German Erich and the narrator Greta Forzane an entertainer from Chicago are old “friends”. Later another three soldiers enter transporting an atomic bomb, Kabysia, a Cretean, woman, Sevensee, a Venusian satyr from the far future, and Ilhilihis, a silvery tentacled Lunan from the distant past.The main plot then revolves around the interactions of the nine characters, their feeling about their involvement in the Change War and the complications created by the presence of the bomb.
My reading indicated that Big Time was considered a more mature and complex story than the typical gosh wow insipidness that characterized much SF of the period. The plot elements rely more on the techniques of the theatre and locked room mysteries than on the common space opera tropes of ray guns and rockets. It was Big Time’s importance in the field that compelled me to finish, it despite my dislike of it on several levels. For one, I am not a big fan of theatre and found the setting and plot uninteresting, but the main problem was the unrelenting misogyny through out the story. I think Big Time is a perfect vehicle to begin a discussion of some of the issues concerning misogyny and racism in SF.
Big Time is of enduring interest for many, because it is very much a theatrical work, unusual for SF of the time. For example, one of the most important conflicts is resolved offstage using nothing but sound effects. Others may consider the work a antiwar story, the Change War certainly seems to be the ultimate futile conflict, as each change adds further complexity to the main time line until it is hard to determine who benefits, and the characters themselves acknowledge this. The aspect of the plot that I found most interesting is a twist created by the very nature of the conflict, the demon-doublegangers participating in the war are recruited at the moment of death, however, subsequent changes to the timeline mean that some of these deaths do not take place. The Nazi Erich, for example, is still alive in the real world and is currently the Commandant of Toronto after the Nazi invasion of North America, the event that resulted in the death of the entertainer Greta Forzane.
It is primarily but not exclusively the relationship between Erich and Greta that caused me problems. I think the best way to demonstrate this is some quotes from the text.
“ Yes, and we copied them. How resourceful does that make us? he retorted, arguing like a woman.” p24
“ Erich didn’t make a move to mix in either fight, which is my little commandant all over, using his fists on anybody but me is beneath him.” p106
“ which gave your dear little Hitler the world on a platter for fifty years and got me loved to death by your sterling troops in the Liberation of Chicago “ p14
It can be a mistake to attribute the attitudes expressed in a work to the author. It could be intended as satire, Swift did not actually intend to convert starving Irish babies to food. Or the plot elements could be intended as a straw man to bounce ideas off. Also, attitudes change over time, and any reading on older SF will expose you to ideas that are politically unacceptable or even horrific in the present day. Lovecraft for example was racist, and it appears that the World Fantasy Awards will discontinue awarding a bust of Lovecraft to winners of the award because of his racist views.
Edgar Rice Burroughs introduces Robert Jones, an incredibly stereotyped negro cook, into Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, (read p29 of the Ace Edition if you don’t believe me), while at the same time lauding the character of the ten Waziri warriors who accompany the expedition. David M. Keller, a popular author of the 1020’s, who wrote the oft mentioned The Revolt of the Pedestrians, penned an number of other entertaining stories. However he also wrote others that surprised me with their racist and misogynistic plots, even when compared to other SF of the period that I have read. These are old examples, and one might hope some attitudes change over time, but SF writers, despite their characterization as forward thinkers, sometimes seem resistant to change, in E.E Smith’s Lensmen series written in the 1930’s, only men and aliens, can have the powerful lens that allows one full status in the patrol, the only exceptions being Clarissa MacDougall and her children. Okay that was the 1930’s, however in James White’s Sector General stories of the late 1950’s and 1960’s only men and aliens are allowed the status of Diagnostician and access to the highest positions within the hospital.
I cannot tell you what Fritz Leiber intended with Big Time, what I can say is that I have read and enjoyed other works by Leiber but struggled to finish Big Time, and leave it at that.