All the Change World's a stage, and one man in his part plays many times — though Fritz Leiber's The Big Time is less a time-travel tale and more Agatha Christie-style Matrix, in play form.
Rules. Rules are what I keep coming back to as I think about this book, which won the Hugo in 1958. Is it fair to say that rules are more essential to science fiction than they are to other genres?
I mean, they're essential to any story, outside of outlandish, arty, experimental stuff (and even then, really). But you don't see romance fans or western fans or plain old regular fiction fans getting up in arms over whether the Millennium Falcon can do such-and-such, or whether zombies could really beat Galactus. You don't find Time Lords restricted to twelve regenerations in other genres, or pets you can't feed after midnight, or concerns about "canon." And I suppose that makes sense — rules are what science fact is about, too, and surely some of the same pleasure centers light up whether you're recalling the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition or how a real quark works.
Anyway, rules are what The Big Time lives and dies by. They're as crucial to its success as they are to its failure to have become something larger.
The book's first overarching success comes from circumventing the rules. (And isn't their circumventableness, like, the best part of rules? Nearly every one of Asimov's robot stories is predicated on that notion, anyway.) Leiber, the son of thespians, wrote The Big Time less as a novel per se and more as a play shaped like a novel. Almost all the action takes place in one room that you instinctively recognize as being about the size of a stage, and characters' entrances, exits, and movements across it are noticeably and elegantly choreographed. Plus, two of them speak in blank verse.
And (as io9 commenter Braak serendipitously pointed out this week) plays are subject to less rigorous standards of verisimilitude than, say, novels. So Leiber can get away with things — like skimpy character development — that he might not otherwise.
Most notably, for example, he has a couple who fall in love within minutes of meeting (technically, there's kind of a stalker-y thing going on there, but still, the romance is mutual and quick), and then the male half of it deciding rather abruptly to stage a revolution. It's all very sudden, and it should be jarring, but you automatically visualize it happening in front of you, as if you were in the audience, and you buy it.
Even the subject matter fits the theatrical style, involving as it does a small group of people wrestling with enormous, timeless questions. And they're literally timeless questions here: The cast are soldiers and support personnel fighting in the Change War, a conflict between two factions from the far future, the Spiders and the Snakes. The Spiders and Snakes muster their forces by pulling average people, from as far as a million years in the past and a million years in the future, out of their lives just before they die, bringing them into what's called the Change World, the zone beyond normal time and space. Then they send the recruits to different eras and places to conduct military actions, to change history.
There are, as you can imagine, a lot of rules about how it all works. The best is the law of the Conservation of Reality, which states that "when the past is changed, the future changes barely enough to adjust." It just feels true. Others get a little more complicated, and chief among Leiber's achievements is that he explains them clearly enough in a book that's only about 120 pages long, and has room left over to work them first into a mystery (that's the other genre of literature that thrives on rules) with a satisfying solution and second into a story that reaches a fairly profound conclusion.
He doesn't sacrifice the human element for artifice, either. Like the previous Hugo winner, The Big Time tells its story in the first person from the eyes of an entertainer — although rather than an actor, Greta Forzane is an escort whose job is to comfort and pleasure soldiers. I'm not sure you ever really get to know her — she's guarded, even inside her own head — but you do believe she's real, no qualification.