The Big Time: An Introductory Exultation

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Image source: goodreads.com

Fun fact to kick things off: There were Hugo Awards given out in 1957, but strangely, the award categories that year departed from those of years past. The Hugo in 1957 was given only for Best U.S. Magazine, Best British Magazine, and Best Fan Magazine, meaning there was no Best Novel that year. Unlike 1954, however, since the Hugos did technically take place, there has been no retro Hugo awarded for 1957. So the bad news is that we have to just skip 1957 entirely.

The good news, though, is that we’re skipping over to 1958, and The Big Time. If you don’t know why that’s good news…well, allow me to explain.

So far in this series, we’ve explored:

Considering that thus far I had only encountered one great novel, and considering that one great novel was written by Robert Heinlein, I began my journey through Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time with, frankly, little confidence in its quality. Even though the next book will be James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, which I’ve already read and know to be outstanding, I wasn’t confident that we had officially reached Great Novel consistency all the way back in 1958. Surely there would still be some clunkers, and seeing as I had no earthly idea who Fritz Leiber was, The Big Time was probably one of them. Hey, at least it was short, right?

Cut to present day. I have now finished multiple readings of The Big Time and consider it among my favorite works of science fiction. I think it’s better than Double Star, which makes it the best book on the list to this point — though whether it can hold up against Blish after a re-read of A Case of Conscience remains to be seen. Still, I cannot express enough how much I love this novel. And my turnaround from “what’s this, never heard of it, probably sucks” to “I must recommend this to every single person in my life” is exactly why I started this project in the first place.

 

What makes The Big Time so good? For starters, it’s so different. So far we’ve had two stories about psychics living on Earth, one story about Earth’s dystopian future, and one story about Earth’s bright future. The Big Time is the first Best Novel winner whose characters never once set foot on Earth. Many (though not all) are from Earth, but even then, they are from different time periods that exist within an alternate history, so it’s not as though their homelands are terribly familiar. Where Heinlein put his own spin on our most iconic neighbors, the Martians, Leiber added aliens who hailed from the Moon (in the distant past) to Venus (in the distant future). Heinlein’s book takes place on spaceships. Leiber’s book takes place inside a small bubble of space/time careening endlessly through the void between realities. It’s one thing to craft a believable future setting and explain it in imaginative ways; it’s another thing entirely to dispense with believability altogether while still maintaining the feeling of a cohesive world.

The Big Time is weird in a way that none of the first four books are weird…and yet it is also, strangely, more human, as well, the first Best Novel winner that centers around moral and philosophical questions. Double Star has interesting things to say about racism, but it isn’t about racism – it’s about Lorenzo Smythe, and Lorenzo gets over his racism before the book is half over. They’d Rather Be Right tries to be philosophical and fails because it’s not smart enough, but even giving it the benefit of the doubt that it doesn’t at all deserve, it’s more preachy than anything else – and incidentally, “more preachy than anything else” is also my one-phrase review of Fahrenheit 451.  The Demolished Man moves too fast to linger on philosophical issues, and there’s definitely a clear right and wrong answer to any questions it raises about morality. The Big Time is small and thoughtful, putting its characters into a high-pressure situation in which the question “what is the right thing to do” is difficult to answer, and in which very few of the philosophical dilemmas put forward are resolved at the end. It’s a rumination about war in the shape of a locked door mystery, a bizarre time travel adventure turned hypothetical morality play whose ultimate conclusion is “damn, I guess we’ll never know the real answer because human nature sucks sometimes and reality is too blatantly oppressive to allow such whimsy.” It’s a story where dreams of a better world become tangible just long enough for it to hurt when they’re snatched away, and you’re left wondering what can be salvaged from the smoking ruins of idealism around you.

In short, it’s incredibly complex and thought-provoking, while still managing to be an amazing story. And it’s tiny, barely meeting the qualifications for a novel, at least to modern eyes. The skill involved here is absolutely astounding.

And if that’s not enough, perhaps I might also interest you in the first Best Novel winner with a female main character? Or, to put it more accurately, the first Best Novel winner that:

  • Features a female main character
  • Is written entirely from a female character’s perspective
  • Contains multiple female characters who are more than just love interests for men
  • Deals directly with gender as a core theme

After Barbara D’Courtney, Clarisse McClellan, Mabel, and Penny, The Big Time’s Greta Forzane and her fellow entertainers aren’t just a breath of fresh air – they represent a massive shift in how these books have presented women. I’m not going to claim Leiber was a perfect specimen of enlightenment, and there are elements of the book that some might find problematic – most of the women in The Big Time are essentially prostitutes, after all. The difference, though, is that Leiber is actively interested in exploring those elements. They are there for a reason. Greta, who’s first person perspective informs the entire story, doesn’t just passively accept the idea of being an “entertainer” for soldiers on leave from the war. She thinks about it, considers it, turns it over in her mind the way many of these characters do for many different moral and philosophical issues. Maybe she’s oppressed, but she gives the reader her own justification for it, instead of the reader having to write it off with a mild “oh, it was the ‘50s.” And she’s not alone – The Big Time contains several female characters, including Kaby, a no-nonsense bad-ass who is clearly the best soldier in the group, and Lily, whose personal agency drives the entire plot of the book and who comes to represent all of womanhood in a central conflict that is, first and foremost, a conflict between the male and female aspects of human nature. It’s safe to say that no previous Hugo winner, and I doubt very many previous nominees, has concerned itself with that.

Considering my own strong interest in gender issues, it’s actually not all that surprising that I liked The Big Time as much as I did. With that in mind, I will begin my analysis with that central conflict – what Fritz Leiber and The Big Time has to say about men and women. That essay lies somewhere in our future, but don’t worry – I will be pulling it through the Door very soon.

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