The Place is a recuperation station outside of space and time where Spider soldiers in The Change War go for rest and relaxation between operations. This war has been going on between The Spiders and The Snakes since the beginning of time and Soldiers have been drafted (resurrected) into “The Big Time” from many points in history. From outside of time, they can plunge in at crucial moments and manipulate events to serve their cause, or they can change things ex post facto, which is why sometimes memory and history don’t quite match.
All of the story happens in The Place, which is sort of like a cosmic Cheers except that it’s run by an Elizabethan bard instead of a washed-up baseball player. The soldiers and entertainers at The Place spend their time drinking, dancing, singing, and discussing world events (not surprisingly for a story written in 1958, concerns about Nazis, communism, and Marxism predominate). When a life-threatening crisis suddenly occurs in The Place, the cast begins arguing, fighting, and suspecting each other.
I love Fritz Leiber and I love his concept of soldiers outside of time influencing the outcome of world events. So I was expecting to love The Big Time, which won a Hugo Award. But I didn’t love it. The narrator, Suzanne Toren, is incredible — she very successfully handles male and female voices and the accents of Germany, Rome, ancient Crete, 16th c England, 19th c “Southern Steamboat” American, and 20th c Chicago. Unfortunately, the story is told from the perspective of Greta, a 1950s Chicago party girl. Ms Toren’s rendition is superb but by golly, 1950s Chicago party girl ain’t that pretty. (Brother, it gets lousy awful fast, man!)
But my main issue is that almost all of The Big Time is dialogue and Greta’s internal soliloquy. I did enjoy wondering along with the characters about who The Spiders and The Snakes are, when “now” is, and how much more change their patched-up threadbare reality can take (the monologues on this topic were fascinating). But I was hoping to witness the Soldiers influencing real historical events. The few parts of the book where these events were described were anachronistically wonderful. (Did you know that they almost dropped a nuclear bomb on Crete in 1300 B.C.?)
The Big Time is a concept novella which reads more like a stage play (probably why it won a Hugo). Even though I loved the concept, I would have loved it more if I’d seen it in action. And even though the audio production was perfection, by golly, I don’t want to listen to another concept novel narrated by a 1950s Chicago party girl!