Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#2: Fritz Leiber and "The Big Time"

This review is a compromise. On the one hand, there are good reasons todo a review of Fritz Leiber's work. It's important: His Nehwon stories helped shape the generic-consensus-fantasy-milieu so many writers of sword-and-sorcery use today. His science fiction tended to be quirky and memorable.(For instance, "You're All Alone" works out the solipsistic "what if I'm the only one who's real?" and "Conjure Wife" starts from the pleasantly paranoid "what if there's a secret that all the women are keeping from all the men?", though the writing in those two cases doesn't really live up to the premises.)

The problem is that I'm not the right person to tackle the task: Most of Leiber's books that I've read have simply rubbed me the wrong way. But it seems like a mistake to ignore him, so what I'm going to do is just review one of his books -- the one I personally consider his best. (Dan'l Danehy-Oakes, who knows and appreciates Leiber better than I, is planning to fill in the lacuna later.)

"The Big Time" (****-) is Leiber's two-inch bit of ivory, a one-act play disguised as a novel. In the background is the Changewar, a war being fought across all of time and space between two factions or races known as the Snakes and the Spiders, mostly through recruits from history and pseudo-history. (Nobody's ever seen a Snake or a Spider. They probably exist -- there are interesting hints about this in "The Big Time" -- but it would be ironic if it turned out that they didn't, and that the Changewar was just running on its own momentum.) The action takes place on a small Spider base that is temporarily isolated. A dozen mercenaries and staff members are cut off from the War -- by the disappearance of the device that maintains the base's contact with reality.

There is a book, "Changewar", which collects a number of short stories of the Changewar, but those tend to feature the more or less standard 'operations' side of the subgenre, with agents of one side or another trying to change history for the benefit of their side. "The Big Time" is a time-out for reflecting on what the struggle means to the participants and to the non-participants. What sort of victory is it, for instance, for a soldier recruited from the English trenches of WWI, to advance the Spider cause by making sure that the Nazis win WWII?

"The Big Time" is also a locked room mystery. There are only a dozen people who could reasonably have made off with the missing device, and it quickly becomes urgent to find it. It's a fair-play mystery, with the reader getting the clues at the same time as the narrator.

And it's a first-rate piece of writing. The first chapter or so of the book is too heavy on the exposition, none of the characters is particularly likable, and too many characters are allowed to make set-piece speeches. For all that, this is the sort of book for which people give well-deserved Hugos.

Dani Zweig