There’s a war taking place, between the forces of the Spiders and the Snakes, that is changing history around us and stretching the fabric of reality to breaking point. This is the Change War, and this short novel tells the story of one small part of that war and how it affects the participants involved.
The narrative takes place in The Place, a bubble of reality drifting through the Void outside the cosmos. This is where Soldiers come to recuperate and heal, where they’re tended to by Entertainers whose main role is take the soldiers’ minds off the horrors they may have encountered in their many battles. The story itself is told to us by Greta, one of the Entertainers, and begins with the arrival of three battle-weary Soldiers, comprising a German officer from WWII, a British tommy from WWI and a legate from the Roman Legions.
The first few chapters are primarily about setting the scene and introducing us to the weirdness of the Change War and its technology. Once the background has been given a new set of travellers arrives with a dormant atomic bomb and the story really takes off. There’s a stirring speech about bringing peace to the many corners of the Change War, accusations of treason and mutiny, growing conflict between groups of Soldiers and Entertainers, and a developing love interest between Soldier Bruce (the tommy above) and Entertainer Lili (aka the new girl). Just as things look like they’re spiralling completely out of control and as sides are being chosen, the McGuffin that tethers The Place to reality (known as the Major Maintainer) is stolen and everyone has to come to terms with the realisation they’ll never be able to leave again. And that’s when the German officer, Erich, decides to arm the aforementioned atomic bomb, starting a thirty-minute countdown in which the thief has the choice of returning the Maintainer or dying with everyone else.
Essentially, this is a very well-paced and well-written locked room story with science fiction trimmings. Leiber peppers the early chapters with small, subtle clues related to the mystery of the stolen Maintainer, most of them so subtle you don’t realise they’re clues until the novel is all but finished. To distract the reader from figuring out the solution for themselves, he throws in one conflict after another, having the characters swapping and changing allegiances every other chapter. Through Greta’s narrative he asks us to consider every angle of not just the principle mystery, but also the irrationality of the Change War and by extension every other, smaller war. In this, Leiber is a master storyteller, entertaining us with what should in essence be a simple whodunnit while giving us plenty of literary meat to chew on while we enjoy the performance.
When it was first serialised in Galaxy Science Fiction back in 1958 The Big Time won itself a Hugo for Best Novel, only the fourth ever book to earn that distinction, and in my opinion it really did deserve it. Even compared to the many, many genre books that have come after it, it’s still one hell of a read, and deserves the four and a half stars I’m giving it.