Twelve People in a Room…   Leave a comment

Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series has always been a favorite of mine. The stories presented, and their manner of presentation, has always left me in awe. This is real storytelling, all the more amazing for being a television show! One of the outstanding characteristics of the show was the way stories of respectable depth and character development often unfolded in a very small setting, with some of the best never straying beyond a single room. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” is an especially good example of this, and perhaps for this reason came to mind frequently as I read Fritz Leiber’s novel The Big Time.

This entire novel, with its dozen characters, takes place in a place called, well, The Place. It’s a facility, maintained by near magical technology, in the Void outside normal space and time. In it, soldiers of the Change War are given a chance to recover from the various traumas suffered in the course of their missions. The so-called Spiders and Snakes are locked in a titanic battle for the control of time itself, though none of the soldiers, or the “entertainers” of The Place, really have any idea of why. The Big Time is something of a locked room mystery, in which a dozen characters recruited from many periods in history (two are nonhuman) find themselves questioning everything they think they know about the Change War, as a potentially explosive situation develops. The device that maintains The Place, and would allow them to resolve their predicament, has vanished. No one seems to know how or why, and one or more of the denizens of The Place is playing his or her comrades false. More than one may have a motive to place them all in grave danger. In the course of unraveling the mystery, the arguments of the characters examine such matters as love and loyalty, the nature of time and history, and the price of blind obedience.

This is a short, dense, complicated novel, and an example of storytelling that relies almost entirely on character development to tell its tale. It’s who and what these people are that creates the story, not the physical action or the exotic setting. The setting is described with as light a touch as possible, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, while leaving out nothing vital. This includes the ultimate resolution of the crisis, an answer that was right there in front of them, and the reader, all the while.

I first read this book while in high school, and derived very little from it. The author’s name caught my eye on the library shelf because I’d just read Leiber’s “Ship of Shadows,” in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (A first for me, the copy was found in a local newsstand and purchased with a bit of change I had from running errands or some such. It was the summer before I started high school. “Ship of Shadows” is literally all I remember about it.) This is “grown up” sci-fi, however, and my frame of reference, such as it was back then, didn’t quite extend to the contents and nature of the story. Nothing exploded and there were no brain-sucking aliens, so it left only the vaguest of impressions. Reading it now from a more mature perspective (yes, mature, and let’s just leave it at that), I might as well have read it for the first time. This makes me very glad I took on this project of reading and discussing Hugo winners, as otherwise I’d have missed a very interesting experience.

Although written in the late ‘50s, of the first four Hugo Award novel winners, this one seems the least dated. The nature of the technology used in this vision of time travel is so fanciful that it touches nothing in the real world, then or now. The characters are taken from times past (relative to 1958) or from invented pasts or futures so distant, that they are either living period pieces, or – again – so fanciful as to touch nothing in the real world. The Big Time seems a novel that has, itself, drifted loose from its own place in the time stream, much like the characters it contains.

This is a first-person narrative, told by a female character who tends to stand on the edge of the situation, dodging the action (such as it is) and the arguments, playing witness to it all and hardly participating until the end. Her recounting of the events involving the other characters includes numerous asides and observations on the nature of The Place and the Change War, building in the reader’s mind a good understanding of why this all matters in the first place. The interplay of the characters she describes, and her inside knowledge of several of them, brings the tale to life.

While I enjoyed reading The Big Time, and can understand why it won the award in 1958, there are times when the tendency of certain characters to hold forth at length drags a bit. In each case the motive behind the oratory is an attempt to bring others around to the speaker’s point of view. By its nature, then, this is not a story that moves by changing scenes for the sake of whatever action takes place. These people are in The Place for the duration. Everything must happen in that room; everything must be said in that room. It works, the way those old Twilight Zone episodes worked, but it calls for some patience on the part of the reader. If you stick with it and let the characters have their say, a strange and fascinating tale will emerge.

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