I don’t know where to begin with this one, really I don’t.
First, though it’s the shortest Hugo award winner I’ve read thus far, it might well be the densest where ideas are concerned. It’s barely a novel in length, below a hundred pages, Google tells me. But the framework it illustrates, of a cosmic Change War between the Spiders and the Snakes, is only a backdrop to a deeply personal story told from the perspective of Greta Forzane, an Entertainer in the Place, an oasis of peace and rest within the madness of this all-encompassing time-space conflict:
I am not as romantically entrancing as the immortal film star who also bears my first name, but I have a rough-and-ready charm of my own. I need it, for my job is to nurse back to health and kid back to sanity Soldiers badly roughed up in the biggest war going. This war is the Change War, a war of time travelers—in fact, our private names for being in this war is being on the Big Time. 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.
In the above description I gave, you might begin to recall a rather recent novella that plays around with a similar war of cosmically temporal proportions—El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War. There’s little place for comparison, however; the lyrical nature of the recent novella is as far removed as possible from Lieber’s pulpy prose, and very little romance is to be found. Lieber is a lot more interested in dialogue, crackling around the edges, producing conflict between Entertainers and the Soldiers they’re nursing to health. I won’t be the first to point out how easily The Big Time could be translated into a play; the very way this is told adheres to the classical unities, those Aristotelian principles of action, time, and place. Though the cosmic theatre of war might be discussed, we are never allowed to study it from a perspective different than Greta’s, and Entertainers are by definition kept from the front, which accounts for the unity of place: the set is a singular location, defined easily enough that even an initiate in set design would have little trouble rendering it (or at least I imagine so, but I’m talking out of my ass). Similarly, Lieber portrays the events in the book in real time from start to finish, and the action of the piece is a conflict between the members of this warrior cell, whose chief question may be posed as, “What role should we continue to have in this endless (yet somehow worsening) war?” There are good reasons to question, as in their attempt to win the war, both sides are tweaking history in merciless, monstrous ways. Here’s one example:
The Spiders assure us that, to thwart the Snakes, it is all-important that the West ultimately defeat the East. But what have they done to achieve this? I’ll give you some beautiful examples. To stabilize power in the early Mediterranean world, they have built up Crete at the expense of Greece, making Athens a ghost city, Plato a trivial fabulist, and putting all Greek culture in a minor key.
There are others—the Spiders, wishing to make Rome powerful, “to date, they’ve helped Rome so much that she collapses in a blaze of German and Parthian invasions a few years after the death of Julius Caesar”. The changing of history seems to have turned its very fabric see-through, and that troubles some of the Soldiers and Entertainers alike. Others seem to be enjoying the ride well enough, so why don’t we say a few words about them?
Characters, then: here too, there’s something almost Aristotelian about the novel—they’re hardly illustrated as differing individuals so much as they are typified examples of stock characters. That perhaps comes part and parcel with a novel of this length, and it’s not to say the characters don’t come alive on the page—only that they are representative of roles you’re already familiar with. The Nazi, whose personal heaven is this insane, endless Ride of the Valkyries-like conflict; the English poet whose high-mindedness recalls Romantic notions and values; Shakespeare’s contemporary, speaking with all the ‘thou’s and ‘thee’s you’d expect; and more, and more, and more.
It sounds promising, doesn’t it? Yet, there’s a wall of exposition to begin with, which made the first dozen pages or so as heavy to my eyelids as led. Once you break through those initial chapters which seem intent on throwing one concept after another without ever taking the time to explore them in-depth, though—once that’s done, the tension builds up at a constant pace, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle to put The Big Time down. I would love to see this on stage, and I think Fritz Lieber would’ve, too.