This is an odd book. I was not surprised to read that Leiber was an actor and the child of actors, as he constructs this novel like a play. A handful of characters are stuck in a room for the length of the book, and they spend the entire novel debating their plight, discussing the nature of their lives and of existence, falling in love with each other, getting into feuds with each other, and generally just talking a lot.
Of course, the room – which they call “The Big Time” – is a dimension outside of time through which the characters (a group that includes Romans, Nazis, and aliens) hop around through history and generally muck with the timeline as part of an ongoing Time War between groups calling themselves the Spiders and the Snakes. Of course, we don’t see any of this historical fighting, because they spend the whole novel trapped in the room when it is sabotaged to disengage from all of space and time. I’m a fan of time travel stories (the historian thing again – I can’t wait to get to Connie Willis), and I was disappointed that we didn’t see more of the Time War presented here.
The narrator is Greta, a flapper from Chicago, now engaged as a nurse in the Time War. The other reason this novel reads like a play is that most of Leiber’s energy seems to have gone into Greta’s voice and language. There’s a lot of slang here – most of it describing aspects of the Time War that we have no way of knowing about or understanding. As a result, The Big Time is more than a little confusing. The slang also felt very “imitation 50s youth culture” to me. It hasn’t aged well as plausible lingo for people outside of time.So, if you want to see a 50s author play with language and character in a very odd setting, maybe check this book out. I can’t say that I enjoyed it though. It’s difficult to follow, at times impossible to understand, and, as a result, not incredibly engaging. At least it was very short.