Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo Nominees 1958


The Big Time, Fritz Leiber (Galaxy Mar,Apr 1958)

1958 saw the last Hugo winners to not come from a voted list of nominees, and it was also the last year where the candidates were published that same year rather than the previous one. "The Big Time" is a stage play in prose, focused on the outpost outside of time and space, known by the locals as "the Place", where soldiers pass through for a little down time during the eternal struggle of the Change War. Extrapolating the Cold War to an extreme, Leiber conceives a future war called "The Big Time" that is fought by two sides that have been distilled to the nicknames of Snakes and Spiders, with no indication of who the good guys, how the names came about or even what the origins of the conflict were. Not only have other alien races been pulled into the fray, but the war is being waged throughout history, with battles taken into the past with the goal of changing the future to give the attacking side the advantage later on. Leiber's law of cause and effect in time travel is more resilient than most, where profound changes in the past may end up only having subtle repercussions in the future. He even ties this into the present day by explaining that any sort of perceived mis-remembering of the past is an effect of the Change War.

What actually happens during the course of the book in the Place is a bit of a muddle. Told from the point of view of a resident "entertainer" (presumably prostitute) Greta, the drama is a Pirandelloan rumination of postmodern self-awareness. Some soldiers arrive, then a few more soldiers come along, one of them has a bomb that somehow gets armed, they set about to disarm it, and then everyone goes away. As in a play, the war is the main topic of conversation, but takes place offstage. The characters' interactions are informed by the conflict and their individual roles in it, but in the end the endless war takes on a greater meaning as the next step in evolution, not just of humanity but of life itself, and Leiber coins the term "time binders" to describe man's unique viewpoint in remembering history. Those who work at this recuperation outpost are "possibility binders", and they are the ones who can actually shape the future.

Although there has always been time travel in SF, I wonder if the standard tropes that we associate with it today were not so well codified in the 1950's, such that Leiber could put forth a completely different perspective on time travel that could resonate well enough within the community to earn this story a Hugo. What I've read of Leiber's longer work is typified by this book, told as an abstract, almost mystical depiction of an otherwise tangible setting, with lots of references to classical literature and mythology to both elevate the context and put it outside a particular time period. Everyone thinks this book would make a great play, such that someone must have already done it, but I didn't see any evidence of it on line. Alternately challenging and frustrating, Leiber refracts a conventional sf premise through his own unique lens, and the result is still something worth pondering 50 years after publication, and probably for quite a while beyond.


"Or All the Seas with Oysters", Avram Davidson (Galaxy May 1958)


The Incredible Shrinking Man