Have you ever thought that the whole universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, you've had hints of the Change War.
Poul AndersonFew comparable tours de force exist anywhere in literature.[a]
I AM dead in some ways, but don't let that bother you—I am lively enough in others. If you met me in the cosmos, you would be more apt to yak with me or try to pick me up than to ask a cop to do same or a father to douse me with holy water, unless you are one of those hard-boiled reformer types.
Greta Forzane is an entertainer at a recuperation station called The Place outside of time and space in the “biggest war going” on, the Change War. Greta was recruited into this war as many are, by being pulled out of the normal flow of time and being shown their moment of death. She accepted that Faustian deal and now lives and works in the Big Time, that medium which allows travel between points in time and space in the Little Time.
The Change War is fought between two factions known as the Spiders and the Snakes. Both sides use their time traversing abilities to alter history to their ultimate advantage. Earth is just one planet in this conflict that spans the whole universe. Time soldiers undertake missions in the Little Time to exact historical changes that ripple throughout history. Unfortunately for the soldiers but fortunately for everyday existence, reality resists change and requires persistent efforts to make progress.
Greta tells the story of a near mutiny that occurred at The Place during a period in the war where recent missions were going badly for the Spiders, and the stress on the soldiers was on full display. One of the soldiers, a British poet from World War I, is disillusioned with the war efforts and upset with how the operations distort and destroy the much-loved achievements of civilization and with an impassioned speech, implores the others to take a stand. Erich, a Nazi officer, wants no part of Bruce's ideological, mutinous call to action and takes his own radical action to prevent it.
The Big Time explores the philosophical issues of total war and the psychological impacts not just of war but of the time distortion, erasures, and augmentations on the memories of the participants and the victims. Even though Greta describes herself as a “party girl” and narrates with a chin-up demeanor, the lives of all in the Big Time are battle-scarred, beaten and buffeted by the Change Winds, with memories fractured, rearranged, and stitched in by changes wrought by the time-operations. Their sense of self is under constant assault, and their emotions are repeatedly pummeled by memories of loved ones still in the Little Time, a de facto war zone. Being invited into the Big Time may mean life, but it is a ghastly one at that.
'I wish to remain a Zombie, if you don't mind. I'd rather the nightmares.'
In the age of the Internet, shared false memories have been dubbed the Mandela Effect, and many causes have been attributed, including parallel universes and Matrix-styled simulations. In The Big Time, written in 1957, collective memories are shifting all the time due to history-changing operations occurring in the Change War. The story starts by asking the reader:
Have you ever worried about your memory, because it doesn't seem to be bringing you exactly the same picture of the past from one day to the next? Have you ever been afraid that your personality was changing because of forces beyond your knowledge or control? Have you ever felt sure that sudden death was about to jump you from nowhere? [. . .] Have you ever thought that the whole universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, you've had hints of the Change War.
According to this passage, we are all Zombies in the Change War. Zombies are people who exist in normal time and are unaware of the battle for history being fought around them. Unaware, except for the nightmares: “And there's another thing about every operation—it wakes up the Zombies a little more, and as its Change Winds die, it leaves them a little more disturbed and nightmare-ridden and frazzled.” 
Those that have been recruited to fight the war exist outside of time. “Your lifeline is all of you from birth to death. We're Doublegangers because we can operate both in the cosmos and outside of it, and Demons because we act reasonably alive while doing so—which the Ghosts don't.”  However, the Demons are not immune to the changes either: “But sometimes I wonder if our memories are as good as we think they are and if the whole past wasn't once entirely different from anything we remember, and we've forgotten that we forgot,”  nor are they the nightmares: “I found that I still felt like a Zombie, although I could flit about, and that I still had the nightmares, except they'd grown a deal vivider.” 
Being self-aware in the Big Time means doubting your sense of self: “And then, for the Demons, there's the fear that our personality will just fade and someone else climb into the driver's seat and us not even know.”  And it is no mere fancy. Changes in history may alter a Demon's lifeline. Who you were is no longer who you were, and who you are is corrupted with new foreign memories. You may even have lived multiple lives and died multiple deaths in the “Little Time”:
I was a young girl again, seventeen, and I suppose every woman wishes to be seventeen, but I wasn't seventeen inside my head—I was a woman who had died of Bright's disease in New York in 1929 and also, because a Big Change blew my lifeline into a new drift, a woman who had died of the same disease in Nazi-occupied London in 1955, but rather more slowly because, as you can fancy, the liquor was in far shorter supply. I had to live with both those sets of memories and the Change World didn't blot them out any more than I'm told it does those of any Demon, and it didn't even push them into the background as I'd hoped it would.
Is this not, the stuff of nightmares? And yet, the mind adjusts and grows accustomed to the constant changes it is buffeted by, even to the degree of perhaps an addiction:
Change is like a drug, I realized—you get used to the facts never staying the same, and one picture of the past and future dissolving into another maybe not very different but still different, and your mind being constantly goosed by strange moods and notions, like nightclub lights of shifting color with weird shadows between shining right on your brain. The endless swaying and jogging is restful, like riding on a train.
The Place is midway in size and atmosphere between a large nightclub where the Entertainers sleep in and a small Zeppelin hangar decorated for a party, though a Zeppelin is one thing we haven't had yet.
The Big Time is written with a stylized first-person narrative. Greta's dialect is not emphasized, but her mannerisms and attitudes are evident in the narration. Along with her are characters with a broad assortment of backgrounds of time, place, and culture, and these are reflected in the dialog through dialect and manners of speech. Two of the characters even speak in blank verse, which is appropriate, as the story is more of a play than novel, and its stage is The Place.
Leiber lets you know what to expect from the get-go by introducing the first chapter with a quote from Macbeth, “When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or rain?/When the hurlyburly's done./When the battle's lost and won.” If that is not enough, the title of the first chapter is, “Enter Three Hussars.” Those are stage directions, and indeed, three time-warriors disguised as hussars enter stage left after Greta is finished setting the scene and the action begins.
According to David Read, The Big Time “was performed as a play at the Babcock Theatre in Salt Lake City in 1982.” [b]
Being a play has implications for the reader. First off, the style is not naturalistic, it is staged as it were. Second, as Josh Wimmer from Gizmodo informs us, “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.” [c] If you accept that you are reading a play, then you can accept the quick, unnaturalistic—but highly appropriate for theater—plot developments that allow Leiber to keep a brisk pace while delivering a multi-layered, allusion-thick, chock full of references and ideas, universe and time-spanning story in under 128 pages.
All of the activity of The Big Time is set in The Place. It may be large—described as being midway between a “nightclub . . . and a small Zeppelin hangar” —but it is still a confined space. In addition to being confined, it is cut off from the entire cosmos with the only point of contact a Door that solely appears when the Place matches rhythm with the universe. Now throw in an urgently sought-after missing object, and what you have is about as air-tight of a locked-room mystery this side of Agatha Christie. But what if you now scuttle the Place so that not even a Door could appear? Leiber sets up precisely this scenario and tosses in a ticking time bomb for good measure.
Leiber takes care not to cheat the reader, and the rules for mystery writing are applied assiduously. All the suspects are present and their motives and opportunities considered, but most critically, the method for absconding with the all-important object is introduced to the reader well in advance of the event and is casually discussed throughout the tale. If you ever re-read the novel, you will be asking yourself, “How did I miss that!”
The Big Time was written in 1957 in a patriarchal society, and exhibits what Aaron Pound from Dreaming About Other Worlds describes as, “casual sexism that is typically on display in so many books written in the 1950s and earlier” [d]. Megan AM of From Couch to Moon further dissects the dilemma for the reader:
Leiber’s tone-deafness about women is a legitimate area for criticism because he was both actively working against norms while unknowingly reinforcing others. For the 1950’s, his inclusiveness is extremely rare and progressive in relation to most other sci-fi writers of (including women SF writers who resigned themselves to the same old tropes!), YET it is uncomfortable and dated by today’s standards in so many ways.[e]
Leiber’s lifetime and writings were concurrent with the Suffragists, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the evolution of women’s roles and the perception of those roles in the Twentieth Century. He was receptive to those changes and strove to incorporate feminist ideas and strong female characters in his writings but positioned as he was, looking out from within a chauvinist society, his vision for the future was short-sighted.
Megan further reveals her thoughts on the dilemma:
I am conflicted about this, but overall, I value Leiber more than most male SF writers from his time– he was outrageous and radical, he defied a lot of stereotypes, helped to push SF into the New Wave, and I actually enjoy and value Greta as an early SF heroine who is an absolute subversion of the helpless housewife and helpless damsel stereotypes. I don’t like her, but I have never seen anything like her in vintage SF.[f]
In spite of the gender bias, readers should be heartened by Megan’s final thoughts of The Big Time:
This is a great example of Weird Fiction, and it’s no surprise that this novel blew people’s minds in 1958. The bizarre combination of characters and metaphysical setting provide a unique and fascinating reading experience. The story is so bizarre, it doesn’t even feel dated. The Big Time would best be served on stage, but it’s still a fun read.[g]
The Big Time is one of those stories that elicit a strong reaction from its readers. People love or hate it, and given that the novel won a Hugo, those that dislike it then call into question how on Earth did it win? It seems that the main problem for most readers is its unnaturalistic storytelling style. After all, it is in the form of a play performed on a single stage. It is also highly stylistic in its telling. Admiral Ironbombs at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased describes the dialogue:
The dialogue has a poetic flourish to it, though one influenced by the jazz and beatnik cultures of the 1950s; those ’50s inflections date the novel as anything but the far-future. Greta’s first-person perspective is rife with dated ’50s prose; the Cretan warrior woman straddles the line between traditional Ancient Greek incantation and freeform jazz, which was somewhat entertaining, if odd.[h]
Megan AM at From Couch to Moon warns readers to approach it as camp:
It’s pure camp. And the people who don’t realize that are the ones who don’t like it. (I typically avoid others’ reviews until I have written my own, but the multitudes of 1-star reviews on Goodreads were impossible to ignore.) Leiber’s style is jarring and disorienting. He’s not going to hold your hand and set up the background. He’s not going to explain why fuzzy Lunar octopodes, or Venusian satyrs, have been chosen to fight in this incomprehensible war that affects the outcomes of major Earth events. It can be difficult to acclimatize to his world.[i]
Admiral Ironbombs expands:
But even as a Hugo winner, I’m not sure it will appeal to casual readers. It asks complex questions of loyalty, love, existentialism, the human condition, and factional warfare, and does so with vigor and sagacity. Its concepts are Earth-shattering, but the plot never leaves one confined space. Tread lightly, and come prepared for a work unrivaled within the science fiction field, for good and for ill.[j]
Despite Megan’s admonitions, the story and the style may not be your cup of tea, and that is okay. If you do not like it, you do not like it. But it does help to be forewarned that this story may be contrary to your expectations, and knowing that, you may go into the reading more relaxed and receptive to what it has to offer.
Leiber, F. The Big Time. Kindle Ed. New Jersey: Gregg Press, 2011. Digital.