Monday, 1 July 2013

The Big Time

Fritz Leiber The Big Time (1958)

What a strange and wonderful world we live in that I who have never brought forth seed unto the world should receive a 1961 Ace Double as a Father's Day gift from a mother-in-law whose existence was entirely unknown to me but a half decade ago in a completely different country; and pertinent for said Ace Double featuring The Big Time by Fritz Leiber, himself a master of stories which ask how the hell did that happen?

There's probably no such thing as a new idea, and Leiber was hardly the first to write about the weirder possibilities of time travel, but nevertheless, anyone familiar with the Faction Paradox mythos of Lawrence Miles and others, specifically the War - as subsequently pasteurised for the back story of the All-New Super Doctor Who Super Show - really needs to take a look at Fritz Leiber's Change War, of which The Big Time is the first book.

The Change War is a conflict the width of the universe, spanning the entire course of history with two equally matched forces continually mucking about with each other's past, changing the present and - oh you must know the drill by now, surely?

The Big Time takes place entirely in a bar, a brothel it could be inferred, a place outside of time and thus immune to the influence of the war where combatants from all across the span of human and even non-human history stop in for a drink and a bit of a rest. The two major powers are dubbed Snakes and Spiders, and The Place is sympathetic to the latter, although it remains in doubt as to whether anyone understands the true nature of these higher powers, even whether anyone has ever directly encountered them. Amongst those patrons ensconced in the bar when it suddenly finds itself cut off from the rest of causality are a Nazi officer, a Venusian satyr, an eight-legged Lunar creature, and a girl from ancient Crete; and so with such emphasis on events occurring elsewhere, it reads somewhat like a stage play - even the work of a weirder, funnier Harold Pinter - doubtless a result of Leiber's theatrical background; so, if the reference means anything to anyone, The Big Time is probably an absentee beat generation father to Faction Paradox:

It's sweet to jigger reality, to twist the whole course of a man's life or a culture's, to ink out his or its past and scribble in a new one, and be the only one to know and gloat over the changes—hah! Killing men or carrying off women isn't in it for glutting the sense of power. It's sweet to feel the Change Winds blowing through you and know the pasts that were and the past that is and the pasts that may be. It's sweet to wield the Atropos and cut a Zombie or Unborn out of his lifeline and look the Doubleganger in the face and see the Resurrection-glow in it and Recruit a brother, welcome a newborn fellow Demon into our ranks and decide whether he'll best fit as Soldier, Entertainer, or what.

The Big Time is packed with mind-bending ideas and heavy with potential subtext - an allegory of the cold war and the machinations of those Leviathan superpowers moving around at impossible distance from all that is human and therefore comprehensible, a novel which sides with the poet for the reason that poets are wiser than anyone because they're the only people who have the guts to think and feel at the same time.

Being Fritz Leiber, there's something of a bebop element: berets are definitely worn, espresso consumed, bongos pounded with gay abandon:

Mark had drawn a Greek hetaera name of Phryne; I suppose not the one who maybe still does the famous courtroom striptease back in Athens, and he was waking her up with little sips of his scotch and soda, though, from some looks he'd flashed, I got the idea Kaby was the kid he really went for. Sid was coaxing the fighting gal to take some high-energy bread and olives along with the wine, and, for a wonder, Doc seemed to be carrying on an animated and rational conversation with Sevensee and Maud, maybe comparing notes on the Northern Venusian Shallows, and Beau had got on to Panther Rag, and Bruce and Lili were leaning on the piano, smiling very appreciatively, but talking to each other a mile a minute.

Some reviewers describe The Big Time as incomprehensible. Although I don't think that's really fair, it does require that its reader pays attention, and in places it feels a little like a conversation with someone who is off their cake and won't shut up. It's disorientating for sure, but if it's a choice between that and space ranger Glenn Tandy scowled with tired eyes at the radar image lit up on his detector screen, I'd rather take the option in which it is assumed I have a brain. It's perhaps not quite so delightfully hatstand as Leiber's A Spectre is Haunting Texas, but neither is The Big Time anything to be sniffed at.

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