Tuesday, November 23, 2010

1958: The Big Time

I don’t know where to begin with The Big Time by Fritz Leiber. First off I’m not even sure this is truly a novel. My copy was only a 129 pages, making me think this more of a novella. It is also one of the strangest time travel stories I have ever read.

There are only three good time travel stories: the Back to the Future Trilogy, the video game Chrono Trigger, and H.G. Wells’ Time Machine . Every other time travel story ends up being too farfetched and requires jumps in logic that I just can’t make. I don’t need stories to be realistic but there should be some internal logic.

The three I mentioned work because for different reasons. Back to the Future doesn’t take itself too seriously, Chrono Trigger is so methodically put together, and The Time Machine takes place so far in future that the usual problems of time travel are irrelevant. Time travel was one of the reasons I couldn’t bring myself to watch Lost (much to the disappointment of my wife and friends). Besides the mysterious island stuff, I didn’t want to get involved in convoluted past timelines, sidelines, forward lines, and I don’t even want to know what else. Sometimes the fiction created is too convoluted and the story cannot hold together
Such is the case with The Big Time. The characters are all part of the “Change War” between the Spiders and the Snakes. Those aren’t the real names of each side, just what they are known as. In fact that is all that is known about them. The Change War is fought by plucking individuals out of history (never anyone famous) and recruiting them to jump to different times and change history to how their side wants it. Following so far? Now, not everyone is a frontline Soldier (caps are the story’s); some people man R&R stations that float through the cosmos and take in battle weary Soldiers.

One of these stations is the setting for The Big Time (just called “The Place”). The narrator is Greta Forzane, an Entertainer. The story begins with three Soldiers becoming after a mission. One of the soldiers is a Nazi officer, another a World War I British soldier and the last one is a Roman legionnaire. This a fairly routine day until another three Soldiers arrive (one a Cretan woman, another a Moon alien from a billion years in the past, and another is an Venusian satyr from a billion years in the future) with an urgent mission and an atomic bomb in a chest. Eventually, “The Place” falls out of sic with the cosmos and they must figure out who caused it before the bomb explodes.

I’m not sure of my feeling on this book. It strange and there is some interesting ideas and characters but at 129 pages it’s difficult to get a handle on everything that is happening. This is both helped and hinder by the narration. Greta is an unreliable narrator and doesn’t always explain things well. It’s a hindrance because that makes the setting very hard to understand. Greta will explain some things but not others. On the other hand her voice is distinct and gives the novel a unique tone. The writing is purposely not always clear because Greta’s mind isn’t always well organized. It is not stream of conscious though so it isn’t as strange as Ulysses. Some of Greta’s actions are creepy. Erich, the Nazi, is sort of her boyfriend and she often and casually mentions that he beats her.

The Big Time was certainly like nothing else. I’m not sure if I would recommend it. It’s too big and strange a concept for such a short novel. Even after finishing it I’m not sure I understand all that happened.
The next book is A Case of Conscience by James Blish. This one is easy to find so it won’t be long.