I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. On this, the last day of 2012, we step backwards…er, sideways in time to a calm in the temporal storm of The Change Wars. Please do keep all arms, legs, and tentacles inside the vehicle; I haven’t tested the time-travel engine on this thing yet, and I think we’d all prefer to make it to 2013 intact. We still have the better part of sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice waiting for us in the new year!
The Big Time
published in two parts in Galaxy Magazine in 1956
published as a separate novel in 1961
Somewhere outside of space and time is the Place, where soldiers in the Change War go to recuperate between battles that occur everywhere in space and everywhen in time. Greta Forzane and her fellow Entertainers do their best to jolly these soldiers back to health and sanity. One day the Change Winds blow in a motley crew of soldiers ranging from an idealistic English poet, to a Nazi commandant, to a Cretan warrior woman, to a furry, tentacled Lunan. Keeping some semblance of sanity in the ever-shifting reality of the Big Time is never easy, but in addition to their fatigue, these soldiers have brought something nearly as dangerous – an atomic bomb…
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
The best thing about this book: One character speaks in iambic pentameter, and another in trochaic tetrameter. If nothing else, seeing modern slang dropped into blank verse and high-tech battles narrated with all the drama of the Odyssey will delight anybody who loves theater, literature, and/or language. The only thing better would be to hear these speeches delivered by a fantastic Shakespearean actor.
The Big Time really, really wants to be a play. I’ve read plays that felt like novels (I’m looking at you, G. B. Shaw), but this was the first novel I’d ever read that was begging to be staged. Leiber grew up in a theatrical family, and The Big Time definitely shows the influence. The setup of the Place is very like a theater-in-the-round – Leiber explicitly compares it to a stage at one point – and the general plot device of “diverse people stuck in a room together talking about IDEAS” will be familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a play written, oh, ever.
Overall this theatrical style works well, though it is at odds at times with the first-person narrative. It can be hard to reconcile the outside-observer-looking-in perspective of the script-like descriptions with the participant-in-the-thick-of-things perspective of Greta’s insights into the other characters. Then again, I’m not sure how to reconcile my feelings about Greta herself.
On the one hand, I like Greta. She’s clever and perceptive and humorous. On the other hand, she’s way too comfortable with her role as Entertainer – more specifically, with her role as female Entertainer. The casual way she mentions one frequent visitor’s general desire to hit her, while still thinking of him as her “darling” and “dear” makes my teeth hurt. And she too easily falls into the whole “women exist to make sure there are babies and make their men happy and we too often cause trouble for our men oh noes!” kind of Stepford-esque thinking that generally makes you want to smack her.
I guess what I’m saying is, I like the style and hate the ideas. At least there were Big Ideas, which is what I expect from a Hugo-winner, and which was a welcome relief after Double Star. But the Big Ideas were full of Traditional Gender Roles of Tradition, because all the men had the Big Ideas and the Big Debates while the women watched and wondered if they could turn any of it to Babies. I’m exaggerating, slightly, but I found it nigh-on impossible to get past the gendered framing. When I did, the Final Big Idea bugged the heck out of me, but at least in the my-brain-has-been-stretched-this-makes-me-uncomfortable kind of way, not the gah-sexism-really-fail kind of way.
All that being said, I liked this book. I think. It’s certainly entertaining enough, with its wide range of personalities and anachronisms, and it’s short enough that the Traditional Gender Roles of Tradition don’t completely overwhelm everything else, at least the first time through. And it does take some risks, asking the reader to stretch their brain a little to accept a new view of reality, which is what good sci fi should do. But still: Traditional Gender Roles of Tradition.
Onwards to the Social Equality Review!
Race: I’m going to say that a woman from Crete does not count as racial diversity, nor does a one-line mention of an unseen character from Japan. But hey, we’ve got Brits and Germans and Russians and Romans and Americans – that totally counts as diversity, right? (The answer, if you’re wondering: No.) (Also: Aliens don’t count as racial diversity, either.)
Gender/Sexuality: I declare epic fail in this area. Men do war and logic, women do babies and sentiment – and then they try to baby the men, which is bad because MANLINESS. The exception is Kaby, whom I adored, but of course she’s a disturbing “cold fish” because she can do war and logic. When the characters are cut off from the rest of reality, Greta starts fretting about how there’s an uneven number of men and women to pair off. So, of course homosexuality is not even remotely considered. On the other hand, she then starts speculating about polyandry…which could be considered progressive, except I think her motives are more along the lines of “the men must be sexually satisfied and there aren’t enough lady parts to go around!” than “we should have relationships that make us happy, traditions be damned!”
Other: As a Pagan I found the reference to Graves’ The White Goddess (which I’ll get around to reading, eventually, maybe) and Kaby’s worship of the Triple Goddess fun. Kaby was definitely the brightest spot of the book, except that of course she’s terribly unwomanly because she fights in wars and is capable of ruthless behavior when necessary (like, you know, when they’re all about to be killed by a nuclear bomb).
OVERALL RANKING: 6 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).