The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

A Nazi, a Roman, and an English poet walk into a bar set in the Void of the Universe…

TheBigTime2

— Stop me if you’ve heard this one…–

That’s where Leiber starts his surreal tale about chronologically mismatched barroom patrons unwinding after a battle in the destructive Change War. It gets more bizarre as his Time Soldiers alternately carouse and argue with some lady “ghosts”, a fuzzy-tentacled moon alien, a satyr, and a Minoan warrior chick, with a devil horn hairdo and an atom bomb. Escorts are provided for amusement, one of whom narrates the story, in her unsophisticated and puerile way.  

The Change War is fought between cryptic rivals, the Spiders and the Snakes, within the Void of the universe. Leiber’s stage is the Void bar, his cast are the patrons, and, naturally, (although nothing about this book is natural), the hijinks ensue.

The terms “stage” and “cast” are appropriate here. Leiber’s theater background is evident in the amplified, hyperbolic tone of the novel, and the exhibitive positioning of the characters evokes stage blocking. Characters monologue in dramatic sweeps to the rest of the group. They even break out into song at times.

TheBigTimeIt’s pure camp. And the people who don’t realize that are the ones who don’t like it. (I typically avoid others’ reviews until I have written my own, but the multitudes of 1-star reviews on Goodreads were impossible to ignore.) Leiber’s style is jarring and disorienting. He’s not going to hold your hand and set up the background. He’s not going to explain why fuzzy Lunar octopodes, or Venusian satyrs, have been chosen to fight in this incomprehensible war that affects the outcomes of major Earth events. It can be difficult to acclimatize to his world.

But part of that is the fault of Leiber’s chosen narrator, Greta Fonzane. First-person narration irks me, especially when it’s done colloquially, and Greta is none-the-better for it. But, then I just had to tell myself, “Megan, you just better pull up your big girl panties and deal with it. This girl just isn’t going to explain things coherently.” (That’s just an example of her irritating narrating style.)

But, the informal, unreliable narrator is perfect for this type of story. Greta is an escort; her job is to amuse, entertain, and distract (and serve as pleasure or punchbag, she hints at times). She is neither deep, nor intelligent, (although she can be clever, when it suits her). She references things in passing, without clarification, that the reader was not present for. There were a few times that I was convinced I must have forgotten a scene that Greta referenced. It’s confusing, but that’s just Greta being Greta, and Leiber will get her to fill in the details, or more context will be provided, if it’s important.

As it turns out, most of her babble is important, and the story wraps up neatly. It even gets profound at the end, with talk about the significance of change, love, and human evolution. And Leiber confirms what we all suspect: Nazi’s are assholes, no matter their location in time and space.

This is a great example of Weird Fiction, and it’s no surprise that this novel blew people’s minds in 1958. The bizarre combination of characters and metaphysical setting provide a unique and fascinating reading experience. The story is so bizarre, it doesn’t even feel dated. The Big Time would best be served on stage, but it’s still a fun read.

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27 thoughts on “The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

  1. I’m sensing the need for a collaborative effort at parsing out just how much effort speculative authors should put into orienting their readers.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, your recent reviews have echoed those sentiments. I wonder if disorientation = credibility in some circles.

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      • Or to what degree the author should be expected to “hold the hand” of the reader. Which raises the question: What’s the best way for an author to tell a story in a setting that requires a great deal of explanation?

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Right. I find myself admiring the authors who throw me off balance and reveal through later context. It takes skill to pull that off, and to trust in their readers’ perceptiveness.

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            It should also be noted that 50s critiques of atomic bombs are more “simplistic” than later ones (perhaps) — the Cold War was just gaining momentum, the bomb shelter scares hadn’t happened yet (late 50s), the Cuban crisis was on the horizon… How Leiber presents his critique is what is off the wall different and commendable.

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Oops, replied to the wrong comment, meant to reply to Jesse’s. Sorry.

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  2. Great review. I really liked this one for the reasons you point out — its cryptic nature, the theater elements, the sheer weirdness of it all. Probably one of the most unique science fiction books in that regard.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks! Cryptic is a good word for it. Cryptic, yet in the voice of someone so unintentionally cryptic (although she does seem to withhold a lot about herself).

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  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    I loved this book…. I mean, how many other writers were trying their hand at theatric SF surrealism in the 50s?

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  4. jessehuds says:

    Do forgive my critique of your critique; I don’t intend to be a crank. But I can’t help but notice that your expectations for a certain type of prose overshadowed any realization the wide variety of prose types Leiber employs, in fact, fit the premise very well. People from all eras and places populate the story, therefore it should be no surprise German, Latin, olde English, colloquial English, contemporary English, etc., etc. is used throughout. Moreover, Leiber is such an intentional stylist (i.e. he is not haphazardly throwing words on the page like so many genre writers), one has to believe the narrative’s style serves a purpose.

    What’s more, I think this book is much more than weird or “Nazis were bad.” The backdrop a war that never ends, he introduced into that setting something new: the atomic bomb – an idea very much on the mind of post-WWII writers. Given the timeline, it begs numerous questions, e.g. what technology next? Will it always be able to be defused? Etc. But I also don’t think The Big Time can be reduced to “atomic bombs are bad”. I’m speculating now, of course, but it’s possible to interpret a cautionary message from the novel, as well, particularly given the huge time span and the idea war never ends.

    But I digress. You are more than certainly entitled to your opinion, but perhaps there were a few facets of the novel that went unexplored?

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  5. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Hi Jesse! I enjoy your Speculiction blog, so it’s great to hear from you.

    I agree that Leiber’s chosen style serves a purpose: “But, the informal, unreliable narrator fits for this type of story… It’s confusing, but that’s just Greta being Greta, and Leiber will get her to fill in the details, or more context will be provided, if it’s important.”

    I love your explanation of the historical context of this novel and Leiber’s possible motives for writing the story. That possibly sheds light on the novel’s theatrical tone– given Leiber’s upbringing, he probably saw a few subversive, message-laden plays in his day. And that Nazi comment was a joke (an example of my super-hilarious deadpan humor).

    Overall, I thought it was a really cool story and I plan to read more Leiber in the future. What do you recommend?

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    • jessehuds says:

      I’m always impressed when people are able to overlook my crankiness with kindness. My apologies, and thank you.

      Leiber goes two ways: you either enjoy him for his bread and butter: the sword and sorcery duo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, of which innumerable picaresque adventure stories were published. Or, if you’re interested in his more thought-provoking works, you can basically pick up anything else he wrote. Conjure Wife, The Wanderer, and Our Lady of Darkness are his other well-known novels and worth the time. He has also written a boatload of short fiction, into which I have dipped only slightly. Ship of Shadows and a handful of other shorts I’ve read and enjoyed individually. Joachim (above) recommends Pale of Air as a collection, so I’d be inclined to follow suit.

      I hope I can add more positively-minded comments on this blog in the future… 😉

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Good! I don’t see what’s so cranky about it anyway. What’s discourse without the occasional “I can’t believe you missed this!” comment?

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  6. nawfalaq says:

    Great review and I dig all these great comments. JB is good at putting things in the historical context. And good points from all re: atomics. One of the things I noticed, was that each reader took away from the novel what he brought to it – but yet all praise it. In my case, I appreciated the pseudo-reality/simulacra stuff (Cp. pg. 85 “Can we any longer locate the now?”)

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  7. I was given this one as a gift several years ago after a friend and I got into the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories earlier that year. Three of us read it at the same time and while the other guys found it okay, I loved it. I’m generally not a big fan of this sort of weird science fiction, but it hit me in all the right ways. I loved Greta Forzane. Whenever I see people post those “what fictional characters would you like to meet/have lunch with” she is one of the first that comes to mind. I think she would be a hoot.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Hi Carl! Thanks for dropping by! This book is so unique, I don’t think I’ve read anything as surreal or disorienting since. And Greta is certainly an unforgettable character. This was my first foray into Leiber’s bibliography, although I do have a collection with a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story headed my way, and I’ll be reading The Wanderer later this spring.

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  8. […] The Big Time (1958) by Fritz Leiber […]

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  9. […] It justifies another round of Reviewer Parallax so check out From the Couch to the Moon’s review. […]

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  10. […] from Speculiction to point out to me the subversive commentary of Leiber’s Hugo award-winning The Big Time (1958), where the one-room story is situated inside the vacuum of an intangible Cold War-like […]

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  11. 3 says:

    wow my pet peeve of being told i must be too dumb if i don’t like a book. obviously i couldn’t follow his “alien worldbuilding” of ripping off mythological figures and calling them aliens, or his sexism of reducing the main character to a floozy to be beaten up or fucked. nice.
    i’d leave a dedicated comment but your review is just apologia, so why bother ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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    • Okay. Have fun with your sterile books full of cardboard perfect people characters. Mind you stay away from SF, since all of those imaginative elements are drawn from western and eastern mythology, and I see how you hate that. Actually, so is the entire history of realist literature, too, so best stay away from those books as well.

      Oh, and do make sure you don’t stray far from home, where you might actually meet flawed women, complicated women, and women who work in bars, as escorts, in unhealthy relationships, but somehow still have a story to tell as unreliably as the rest of us normals who are not as perfectly sterile as you.

      Sarcasm aside, Leiber’s tone-deafness about women is a legitimate area for criticism because he was both actively working against norms while unknowingly reinforcing others. For the 1950’s, his inclusiveness is extremely rare and progressive in relation to most other sci-fi writers of (including women SF writers who resigned themselves to the same old tropes!), YET it is uncomfortable and dated by today’s standards in so many ways. I am conflicted about this, but overall, I value Leiber more than most male SF writers from his time– he was outrageous and radical, he defied a lot of stereotypes, helped to push SF into the New Wave, and I actually enjoy and value Greta as an early SF heroine who is an absolute subversion of the helpless housewife and helpless damsel stereotypes. I don’t like her, but I have never seen anything like her in vintage SF.

      This would be a nice conversation to have with you, but you aren’t about conversation.

      If older works aren’t your thing, or you don’t enjoy tracing scifi’s flawed and progressive roots, you should just stick with newer writers. Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a modern, Campbell-nominated writer who does draw from myth, and who does write flawed and unhealthy women characters, but maybe you’ll be able to overlook it because the sexism (if you call depicting flawed women “sexist”) and myth-stealing is written in a more contemporary style, and therefore, is acceptable.

      But AVOID China Mieville with his silent, six-packed beetlewomen. Now THAT’S sexist.

      Liked by 1 person

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