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The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

I’ve read things by Fritz Leiber that I adore — both Conjure Wife and, more vehemently for me, Our Lady of Darkness are important ones — but The Big Time simply did not work for me.

I like the idea of the Change War — familiar though it is —  and the notion of cutting people out of their “lifeline” so that they become pseudo-immortal soldiers in the war — and idea that I think still has legs, and indeed is used these days in time travel narratives; I like the idea of the Place as a pocket universe outside of our spacetime continuum where soldiers could go for R&R (indeed, I have a draft of a time travel short story kicking around with just such a “place” in it, though it exists for a far different purpose than the one of Leiber’s brothel); I like the weird inversion of characters who have escaped time (and death, and all that) being trapped in a deadly situation with a limited time in which to resolve it; I like the simplicity of the idea that the two sides in the Change War, the Spiders and the Snakes, are close enough to being godlike that the humans who serve them have no freaking clue what the war is for or how it’s going. And the bit at the end, the thing Ilhilihis explains to the protagonist (Greta), it was an interesting commentary on the setting itself.

But the way this book was written, I just couldn’t really get into the book, much less love it, or even like it. (Maybe I’m spoiled, just having read something by Russel Hoban, I don’t know.) I did manage to inhale it — a couple of hours at home, an hour on the stationary bike at the gym, and it was done. But while I’ve lost no respect for Leiber, I do wonder how in the world this book won the 1958 Hugo for Best Novel… or, rather, I wonder what criteria people held highest for novels at the time. As Jo Walton notes, there were nominations that year, but a lot of books (books much better remembered) were eligible.

This review by Sam Jordison back in 2008 pretty much hits the highs and the lows for me: some neat ideas, some funny bits, but an annoying protagonist (female, yes, which is a good thing, but also a bit casually sexist: she’s a refugee from a Nazi-controlled Chicago who has spent some time as an inmate in an extradimensional/extratemporal military geisha house/bordello, who is pretty much fine with her fate) who attempts quite a bit to be sassy and funny instead of actually being sassy and funny; some painful dialog (really, I had to skim parts as it hurt too much when I paid closer attention); and, well, yes, as Jordison puts it, thinking too hard about the ideas in the book didn’t increase the pleasure much.

That said, I do imagine Leiber could have done better with other works in the Change War series… anyone read them? Are they any better than this book? The same? Worse? I would probably pick one up in a bookstore and skim before buying anything, mostly because I know that when he’s on, Leiber does wonderful work. This book, I do not consider “on” at all. Also, it’s funny it was considered a novel — I would have thought even in those days it would have been considered a novella, at length it was.

Despite Jordison’s derision for Leiber’s The Wanderer, that’s probably the Leiber novel I’ll try out next, if only to say I tried. (Gather, Darkness doesn’t appeal nearly as much, and it’s the other novel by Leiber I have on hand, aside from a single Lankhmar text in the form of a Tor Double… though I do wonder whether “Ill Met in Lankhmar” might be an alright introduction to that world, given that I’ve never read any of the Fafhard & Grey Mouser books. I’ll have a look about for opinions, but anyone with suggestions, do tell. It did win a Hugo and a Nebula, if that’s any recommendation…)

But I do wonder whether the popularity of the book at the time (and even now, among some fans) says something about what some SF readers want in a book, and which I just am not seeing? For those who are fans of the book, or like it, what’s to like about this book that outweighs the negatives I’ve observed? Do people like it mostly out of a sense that, for 1957, this was good SF? (Which I don’t think is a valid argument, necessarily, but I can understand someone making it.) Or is it still doing something right now, and I’m just not seeing it?

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