The Big Time is a masterpiece of contradiction. It is set in a dazzling science fiction universe of limitless possibility, yet the tale itself is one of claustrophobic confinement. The fate of all time and space itself hangs in the balance, armies battle on all fronts, yet the characters are the most minor of rear-rank spearholders. And they are all the more fascinating for it.
If you are unfamiliar with the premise, The Big Time tells of the Changewar between the Spiders and the Snakes, two mysterious factions battling for control of space and time. Their mode of battle is to change history, their foot-soldiers are agents recruited from all of history and every planet in the universe.
But forget all that, Leiber never tells you what any of the missions mean, only that faceless, nameless commanders say it’s important. And if they order a British WWI vet to help the Nazis win WWII, he just has to assume they know what they're doing. The central character is not a soldier, but an entertainer at a trans-tempoal USO station. Tangled webs of love, jealousy, and mutiny swirl through the lives of the entertainers and the time-soldiers they care for.
The Big Time is all Fritz Leiber, starting with his love of the theater. In fact The Big Time is written much like a play, with a very rigorous observance of Aristotle’s unities (I’m not being very original in noting that). Indeed, the one place, one time approach is perhaps the only way to make sense of a concept as big as the Changewar. Leiber’s love of word-play and his interest in Germans and Shakespeare are very much in evidence.
The Big Time is a science fiction novel you can recommend to people who don’t read science fiction.