Book Review: The Big Time | The Mind Spider and Other Stories by Fritz Leiber
Have you ever noticed that something isn’t in the place you last remembered putting it? That an event you remember happening one way is described as happening a different way in the history books? Perhaps you have suddenly felt that you weren’t even the person you thought you were? Maybe you’re going insane…or maybe it’s the Change Wars.
The Change Wars are fought over the entire breadth and depth of time and space, two factions known as Spiders and Snakes battling to have the course of universal history go their way. It’s not precisely clear what the two sides want, if one is good and the other evil or if human morality even applies, or what the victory conditions would be. It is known that both sides lift people out of their own timelines shortly before their deaths to become Doublegangers, to act as Soldiers or Entertainers or other, more obscure occupations relevant to the Change Wars. This Ace Double is largely concerned with those Doublegangers and how the Change Wars affect them.
The Big Time is set in The Place, a building-sized rest station outside of normal time-space. A number of Entertainers are quartered there to help Soldiers recover physically and emotionally between Change War battles. Our narrator is Greta Forzane, who died in the Nazi invasion of Chicago in the late 1950s. This makes her affair with Erich von Hohenwald, formerly an Oberleutnant in the army of the Third Reich, rather fraught. It doesn’t help that his idea of fun sex involves giving her bruises.
If one side or the other manages to score a major victory, the Big Change can have effects on the Doublegangers’ original timelines, giving the Doublegangers phantom memories. Erich was snatched from his personal timeline when he died on a Norwegian battlefield, but now he has memories of having lived long enough to become the hated Commandant of Toronto. And if the Big Change makes the original person die before they “originally” did, it kills the Doubleganger.
Thus, each time The Place’s Door opens, the Change Winds may bring nightmares or even death. This time it has deposited six Soldiers of varying start times, two of which are aliens (but from within Earth’s solar system) and one a warrior woman from ancient Crete. The problem begins with a new recruit, a British poet from World War One, who has some idealistic notions bordering on mutiny.
While everyone is reacting to his incendiary rhetoric, somehow The Place undergoes Introversion, being completely cut off from normal space-time. And the only device that can open it back up has vanished, despite a lack of plausible hiding places. Oh, and just to add to the pressure, an atomic bomb has been activated and will kill everyone within thirty minutes.
This novel won the Hugo for Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) in 1958 after being serialized in Galaxy Magazine. One of its interesting features is that it’s a “bottle episode” taking place in only one location, a large stage-like area with curtains separating different parts, and most of the action placed in the reception area. I could easily see this being adapted for an (expensive) play or a juiced up episode of The Outer Limits.
As it is, there are almost too many characters, and a couple of them turn out to be red herrings who get almost no development. Once they’re whittled out, the tension rises considerably.
Sex is only alluded to, and Erich never hits Greta during the story, but it’s clear that it’s an expected part of her (and the other Entertainers’ ) job if that’s what the Soldiers need to unwind.
There are a lot of interesting ideas going on here; it’s certainly worth hunting down for science fiction fans.
The Mind Spider and Other Stories makes up the other half of this Ace Double, six short stories from about the same publication years.
“The Haunted Future” says it’s set in the early 21st Century, but the timeline works better if it’s the middle 21st Century. The peaceful community of Civil Service Knolls rests outside of New Angeles. It is almost time for the annual Tranquility Festival, when the locals celebrate how nice and quiet it is in their bedroom community. Yes, everything is smooth going in this happy village.
Except that the community members are snapping into violent insanity at an alarming rate, and now some people are claiming that a creature of darkness haunts the sky and peeps in their windows. Judistrator Wisant is trying to keep these disturbing facts from becoming more widely known, but when his own daughter stops wearing clothing and starts stabbing pillows, some begin to wonder about Wisant’s stability.
This is a cautionary tale about a society that has pursued tranquility and conformity too far, until insanity has become the only escape into individuality. It’s leavened by humorous touches–Bermuda shorts and sandals are now mandatory men’s business attire.
“Damnation Morning” is the first of three Change Wars stories. A man is recruited by the Spiders, and must flee an unknown doom. Once again, the mysteriousness of the Spiders and Snakes’ true natures is emphasized, particularly with the twist ending. (Content note: suicide.)
“The Oldest Soldier” starts in a liquor store as old soldiers swap stories. Max has the best stories, but they can’t be true, can they? Except that when one of his drinking companions accompanies Max home, there’s something crouched on the fire escape that is not of Earth, and Max realizes that he must return to his unit. This one was clearly Lovecraft-influenced.
“Try and Change the Past” has a Snake recruit get a rare opportunity to alter his own death. Turns out the universe has ways of preventing that, which makes the Big Changes even more impressive. An impressive use of contrived coincidence.
“The Number of the Beast” is a change of pace. The police chief of High Chicago must discover which of four telepathic aliens murdered a peace delegate from Arcturus, all the aliens being sworn to silence on the matter unless the Young Lieutenant correctly divines the guilty party. If he guesses correctly, the assassin will give itself up truthfully. But if he guesses incorrectly, the falsely accused alien’s race will declare war on the Earthlings. The Young Lieutenant consults his retired predecessor on this mystery. You have all the clues they do; can you divine the true meaning of the Number of the Beast? Some casual sexism.
“The Mind Spider” rounds out the book with the tale of the telepathic Horn family. Five mutants who can communicate with each other mentally, the Horns are horrified to discover that there is a sixth telepathic presence on Earth. Horrified because it is not human, and because it was imprisoned in Antarctica for the crime of stripping planets of their life-supporting environments. It has waited eons for telepaths it can summon to free it. One of the Horns manages to get a mind shield up in time, but can he stop his relatives without killing them?
“Try and Change the Past” is perhaps the best of these stories, and “The Number of the Beast” more of a logic puzzle than anything else.
If you can get this in the Ace Double form, swell. “The Big Time” has been reprinted separately; the other stories may take a bit more tracking down.