The Big Time
(1958) by Fritz Leiber
American SF was in a bit of a rut in 1957 and there were signs that the center of creativity was shifting towards England where promising new writers like John Brunner, J G Ballard and especially Brian Aldiss had appeared. And the last three novels I've read were by English writers.
But then Fritz Leiber, who was totally absent in the magazines in 1955-56, came up with this short novel, published in the March and April 1958 issues of Galaxy. It was also published in book format in 1961 as part of an Ace Double, and there doesn't seem to be any revisions, not even in later editions.
The story reads like a play, with everything taking place in one room during a few hours. But the room is not just any room, but a Recuperating Station located in The Void outside normal time where time traveling soldiers fighting the Change War come for R&R. The story is told by Greta Forzane who is one of the Entertainers of the Station.
So quite a novel premise, similar in some ways to Isaac Asimov
's The End of Eternity
, H. Beam Piper'
series, and Poul Anderson
's Time Patrol
series, and probably inspired Michael Moorcock
's Eternal Champion
to some degree. While Leiber's story is much more limited in actual plot (but with a very rich setting), it's much more stylistically original and more philosophical.
It's also partly a locked room mystery story, the solution involving an object never referred to, but which can possibly be deduced, so not entirely fair to the reader, maybe.
Some quotes to better illustrate what's it about:
There are a lot of things in the Gallery and I can always find some I haven't ever seen before. It gets you, as I say, thinking about the guys that made them and their thoughts and the far times and places they came from, and sometimes, when I'm feeling low, I'll come and look at them so I'll feel still lower and get inspired to kick myself back into a good temper. It's the only history of the Place there is and it doesn't change a great deal, because the things in it and the feelings that went into them resist the Change Winds better than anything else.
Right now, Erich's witty lecture was bouncing off the big ears I hide under my pageboy bob and I was thinking how awful it is that for us that there's not only change but Change. You don't know from one minute to the next whether a mood or idea you've got is really new or just welling up into you because the past has been altered by the Spiders or Snakes.
Change Winds can blow not only death but anything short of it, down to the featheriest fancy. They blow thousands of times faster than time moves, but no one can say how much faster or how far one of them will travel or what damage it'll do or how soon it'll damp out. The Big Time isn't the little time.
And then, for the Demons, there's the fear that our personality will just fade and someone else climb into the driver's seat and us not even know. Of course, we Demons are supposed to be able to remember through Change and in spite of it; that's why we are Demons and not Ghosts like the other Doublegangers, or merely Zombies or Unborn and nothing more, and as Beau truly said, there aren't any great men among us--and blamed few of the masses, either--we're a rare sort of people and that's why the Spiders have to Recruit us where they find us without caring about our previous knowledge and background, a Foreign Legion of time, a strange kind of folk, bright but always in the background, with built-in nostalgia and cynicism, as adaptable as Centaurian shape-changers but with memories as long as a Lunan's six arms, a kind of Change People, you might say, the cream of the damned.
But sometimes I wonder if our memories are as good as we think they are and if the whole past wasn't once entirely different from anything we remember, and we've forgotten that we forgot.
But I'm forgetting that this is a cosmic war and that the Spiders are conducting operations on billions, trillions of planets and inhabited gas clouds through millions of ages and that we're just one little world--one little solar system, Sevensee--and we can hardly expect our inscrutable masters, with all their pressing preoccupations and far-flung responsibilities, to be especially understanding or tender in their treatment of our pet books and centuries, our favorite prophets and periods, or unduly concerned about preserving any of the trifles that we just happen to hold dear.
Have you ever asked yourselves how many operations the fabric of history can stand before it's all stitches, whether too much Change won't one day wear out the past? And the present and the future, too, the whole bleeding business. Is the law of the Conservation of Reality any more than a thin hope given a long name, a prayer of theoreticians? Change Death is as certain as Heat Death, and far faster.
Every operation leaves reality a bit cruder, a bit uglier, a bit more makeshift, and a whole lot less rich in those details and feelings that are our heritage, like the crude penciled sketch on canvas when you've stripped off the paint.
"If that goes on, won't the cosmos collapse into an outline of itself, then nothing? How much thinning can reality stand,
Can we tell the difference between the past and the future? Can we any longer locate the now, the real now of the cosmos? The Places have their own nows, the now of the Big Time we're on, but that's different and it's not made for real living.
"The Spiders tell us that the real now is somewhere in the last half of the 20th Century
"The Spiders also tell us that, although the fog of battle makes the now hard to pin down precisely, it will return with the unconditional surrender of the Snakes and the establishment of cosmic peace, and roll on as majestically toward the future as before, quickening the continuum with its passage. Do you really believe that? Or do you believe, as I do, that we've used up all the future as well as the past, wasted it in premature experience, and that we've had the real now smudged out of existence, stolen from us forever, the precious now of true growth, the child-moment in which all life lies, the moment like a newborn baby that is the only home for hope there is?"
poets are wiser than anyone because they're the only people who have the guts to think and feel at the same time.
This was the first story in Leiber's Change War series, so it will be interesting to read subsequent stories.