Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his blog series Philip K. Dickathon and The Horror! The Horror! He can also be found on his own blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. This is Dee’s fifth GMRC review to feature in our blog.
The universe is at war. Leiber’s short novel is set, on one level, in the later part of the 20th century, but it seems that war has been going of forever. Here is how Greta Forzane, our narrator, states things.
“This war is the Change War, a war of time travelers – in fact, our private name for being in the war is being on the Big Time. Our soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion years or more from now. A long, killing business, believe me.”
Greta is an entertainer at The Place, a self-enclosed environment outside space and time. Solders fresh from battle follow the change winds and arrive for medical assistance and some R&R. Picture a USO with freer alcohol and relaxed sexual attitudes. Advanced technology provides state-of-the art medical treatment and sex partners to suit every fancy. If a visiting soldier does not take to one of the on-staff entertainers, or if his alien anatomy causes complications, he can always choose from the hundreds of ghost girls kept folded into envelopes in the storage area. (It would slow things down at this point to attempt an explanation of ghost girls.)
Life at The Place doesn’t seem all that bad, although it could get a bit boring since it goes on more or less forever. But those who run the place see old friends returning from battle on a regular basis, and they stay occupied with their own intrigues and affairs. They have only to wait for their maintainer, the device that keeps The Place intact outside of space and time, to start flashing its blue lights. That’s the sign that the change door is about to open and new arrivals or possibly old friends will come crashing through.
Fritz Leiber came from a theatrical family. He father, Fritz, Sr., was a successful Shakespearean actor at a time that touring companies specializing in the bard could make stars of their lead actors with national audiences. WIth his success he started his own company, and when the Depression killed the touring theater business he relocated to Hollywood and had a moderately successful career as a character actor. Although Fritz. Jr., for the sake of his education, was raised by aunts and uncles in Chicago, he knew the theatrical world and spent time in the theater and in Hollywood himself. He was fully aware of the show business connotations of The Big Time when he titled his novel, and it is a story saturated with theatricality. At times it reads as much like a play as a novel. And as a play it is a real crowd pleaser.
Where to start? Greta describes The Place, a kind of platform surrounded by a gray void, as a stage set out of Diaghilev. Leiber’s father was known for innovative, modernist settings that replaced the creaky Victorian trappings common to Shakespearean productions with the latest innovations in bare stages and quick scene changes. (He had also figured out that the latter were cheaper and easier to move around the country.) In the novel, the Change Door, through which outsiders enter, is invisible until it operates and disappears until needed again. The main set includes a bar, which gets continuous use, a piano, some furniture, and doors leading off to medical and storage facilities. Reading the novel, I could picture the stage diagram in the back of a the yellow, Samuel French editions we used in high school productions.
Leiber peoples his novels with types. This is not surprising for genre fiction, but they are distinctly theatrical stock characters. There is a wild west element to The Place, with the female entertainers brainy counterparts to saloon girls. Doc, in classic Western form, is a drunk. Sid, who runs the place, was plucked from the short time – that’s where you and I live – during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. His jumbled Elizabethan dialect makes him sound somewhat like a mediocre Shakespearean actor. New people arrive, they hear him speak, and before they can ask the inevitable question he preempts them with the answer, “Yes, I knew him.”
The Change War itself is fought between the Spiders and the Snakes, intergalactic forces that sound strangely like the gangs from West Side Story. Soldiers come from every period of earth’s history and can also include furry lunar octopi from a billion years in the past and Venusian satyrs from an equally distant future. One of Greta’s favorites is an ex SS officer. Anger over minutiae such as Nazism becomes beside the point when shifting patterns of power played out over millennia are involved. He is accompanied this trip by young Bruce, a British soldier from the trenches of WWI who has opted for this form of immortality over dying at Passchendaele. He is a poet of the Rupert Brooke school, and the author of verses that led Lilly, the newest entertainer at the Place, to enter the Red Cross. They are our ingenues, and Greta cannot help but comment on their corny dialogue.
Since this is a play, there must be surprise entrances. The Change Door bursts open with little warning, and Kadrys, a Cretan warrior woman from the fourth century BC explodes onto the scene. Due to the vicissitudes of the Change War, Crete and not Greece dominates the ancient world. Her recitation of a disastrous battle she has barely escaped could come from a lost play by Aeschylus.
Leiber peppers his dialogue and exposition with theatrical phrases. Characters are accused of scene stealing, and when Bruce makes his impassioned plea for a reconsideration of war itself – his Mark Antony moment – Greta is aware that his is “stagewise,” i.e., playing to the audience. Greta has her own moment of stage fright, and she wonders if she is writing her own private hell into the script.
There is a plot to all this, and Leiber knows that nothing moves a plot along like a ticking bomb. He lets it play out in three distinct acts with a dennoument. At the end, the soldiers are donning the appropriate costumes for a return to ancient Egypt, where they need to plant an atomic bomb. Before they leave, they gather as a group and sing what I think is a reworded version of “The Wiffenpoof Song,” although I had trouble making it scan. The point is they are real troopers to the end. Just as the entertainers who stay behind are real troupers themselves. That’s one pun Leiber leaves unstated.