The Big Time
by Fritz Leiber
1958 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
The Big Time is a time travel story about a great war over the entire course of history where the nature of reality changes from attack to attack.
It features sinister plots by beings far beyond human understanding and we're all just pawns in their eternal game.
Some of the time travel concepts are particularly mind bending like what happens if history changes so you were recruited into the war (you still exist but you have overlapping memories of the new history).
And it's told completely from the perspective of entertainers who exist entirely outside of the war so that none of those fascinating concepts raised are actually brought into the plot which occurs entirely in what amounts to a bar outside of time.
I think it would be almost unfair to give a synopsis since none of it actually matters for the book but here goes. There are two forces fighting for control of all of time, the "Snakes" and "Spiders". They recruit people through mysterious means and have them affect the course of history. Leiber makes a big deal of the fact that the true nature of the "Snakes" and "Spiders" is unknown to those fighting the war; they don't know what the side they're fighting on is fighting for. There's a place outside of time that is provided for rest and recuperation between battles which is where our narrator works and it is where the "action" takes place. A bunch of people come back from a failed mission and they might have a bomb with them and then the bar loses its connection to the universe.
The ancient adage of "Show, don't tell," isn't always true but you can get a good example of why it is repeated so often by reading The Big Time. Almost all of this book is telling. The narrator tells us about the interesting impact of the time war they're fighting but we never see any of it. People tell us something about what missions they perform in the war but we never see them. The very slight plot that effectively starts about two-thirds of the way through the book and is quickly wrapped up and that just leaves us with characters. Sadly they're paper thin and can't carry the weight of the book.
Perhaps at the time that Leiber was writing having characters fighting a war they didn't understand and were growing weary of conflict was less of a clichè when he wrote it. He was far from the first to use those themes and his examination of them goes about as far as the description in the previous sentence.
I've been told that Leiber wrote The Big Time with a stage production in mind and if that's true then it certainly explains the very confined nature of the story. It still doesn't make The Big Time good. It's all build up, no pay off. It's so slight that I really don't have anything else to add. I can't talk about the big ideas because they're raised but not used. I can't talk about the plot because it's barely there.