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The Hugo Award Novels, 4: 1958, The Big Time

Posted 05-10-2009 at 10:52 AM by chexmix
Updated 06-17-2009 at 01:21 PM by chexmix

The Hugos for fiction skipped a[nother] year in 1957, when only magazine awards were given. And so we come to 1958, and Fritz Leiber, and the short novel The Big Time, another one I managed to miss as a younger person.

It seems rather unfair to gripe that The Big Time comes off a bit stagy, since it is difficult to escape the sense that Leiber meant it that way. He was the son of a Shakespearean actor & appeared in a few films himself, and the theatre is a kind of low-level background to a lot of his work.

In The Big Time the theatrical element is all but foregrounded. This means among other things that we have two theatrically-aligned Hugo-winning novels in a "row" (if two points separated by a year can be considered a "row").

The Big Time takes place in a single setting, with an extremely limited cast of characters. As many have observed, you could stage this novel pretty easily. And it just occurred to me that Leiber might have been having himself a good joke with the old "Aristotelean" unities of time, space, and action: in his Poetics, Aristotle observed that effective tragic drama seemed to take place in a single setting, in about a 24 hour (or less) period, and with one major thread of action (this was unfortunately boiled into a tedious formula by Neoclassical dramatists).

In the world of The Big Time, however, time as we understand it doesn't ... really ... exist, so the notion of a unity of time is kind of a joke. Ha, ha, ha. Ahem. The Big Time takes place in a place known as "The Place" which is sustained in the middle of "The Void" by high tech that is deliciously half-described, outside a gigantic war of temporal fiddling and flinging between adversaries known only as The Spiders (the good guys, apparently) and The Snakes.

And so, The Place is a kind of canteen outside time itself for weary time soldiers and such. It's a wonderful concept, and Leiber makes a lot out of it in just over 100 pages. His narrator, Greta Forzane, is an "Entertainer" in The Place -- the kind of character that would have been made more lurid use of a few years later, perhaps. The Big Time ends up reading as a kind of cross between Sartre's No Exit and some of Spider Robinson's "Callahan's" stories (or Arthur C. Clarke's "White Hart" series -- you know, tall tales in space bars, that kind of thing). It is quite enjoyable, but feels longer than it is because of the aforementioned staginess and the resultant talkiness of it all. But the Leiber wordsmithing magic kept drawing me back in, and there are things about this little book I will always remember -- not least of which is a few details about the Spider-spun operating room in The Place ... which served to remind me that Leiber had some connections to the H. P. Lovecraft gang. Worth digging up.

That feels like a vague review, but I'm tired.
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