Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time : You are a Joke

Greta seduces you into the text with the second person. She tells you what “you don’t know” but exists despite your blissful ignorance (8). You have to catch up to her understanding of the world. She baits you into an interactive experience with repetitive “have you ever” interrogatives; making you an active player in a 2-dimensional verbal construct (8). Her playfulness and deadpan delivery of serious philosophical questions about memory, identity, death, and the supernatural allows you to laugh at your fears and also at yourself.  All that you question and daydream about, especially in a sci-fi context, is real and influencing your life right now. However, Greta glosses over the significance of a supernatural world to normalize the strange and estrange you from her. You cannot be as cool as Greta.

Using Humor to Counteract Unbelievability

Although I’m not entirely sure on the subject, I do think that the humor in The Big Time is meant to distract the readers from the implausible realities in the cosmos, but also maybe used in order for Greta to cope with these strange events. Greta jokes a few times about her vacation spots being 15th Century Italy and Augustan Rome which I think is for the benefit of the readers. The idea of traveling and vacationing across time and space is such a incomprehensible subject that when Greta laughs it off, it gives the impress she knows enough and is confident enough that this is the norm, it makes the readers believe it is the norm and allows her to avoid trying to explain the details of it. The vacations are so blase to her that she feels no need to talk about what interests her there, how she’s treated, or how she avoids discovery. Many of the other jokes such as seeing a “human…turn into strange fruit – ugh it always makes me want to toss my cookies and my buttons” and Illes’s inhuman looks as “cute” cuts the reader’s shock at these strange and horrifying things short as she treats them as a joke (Leiber, 28; 36) However, one of the last pieces of humor in the first part is “I might look as proud if I were in her shoes, but I sure as hell wouldn’t look as confident” which is a joke Greta thinks of while the group is going one by one and asking everyone how they feel and when she’s asked she becomes frantic and says “not to Greta, no, no, no” (56; 57). It looks like Greta was cracking a joke in order to distract herself from the situation.

Utilizing Humor Amidst Seriousness

“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…that look they give you out of the corner of their eyes as if to say, ‘You again? For Christ’s sake, go away. We’re the dead…Stop torturing us.'” (Lieber 51)

Although Greta is often the voice of humor in this story, it’s in this moment that Bruce–who, throughout the story, is more or less ridiculed for his unfunny nature–takes a moment to offer a moment of humor, despite its dark connotations. He utilizes this in order to give an assumed voice to the Zombies (as he questions whether the Change War is stripping the past too much), and in giving a voice to these beings, brings about another perspective to his argument. The humor he gives to the Zombies’ assumed, metaphorical stance can be seen not only as a way to lift away from the seriousness of his speech, but also as a way to humanize the consequences of the Snake/Spider war. In giving the consequences a human voice and some humor, Bruce only broadens the boundaries of his argument, utilizing humor as a way to broaden the Spiders’ viewpoint and possibly, he hopes, to change some minds about continuation of the war.

Greta as Necessary Entertainer

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.  But you are not likely to meet me in the cosmos, because (bar Basin Street and the Prater) 15th Century Italy and Augustan Rome–until they spoiled it–are my favorite (Ha!) vacation spots, and as I have said, I stick as close to the Place as I can.  It is really the nicest Place in the whole Change World.  (Crisis!  I even think of it capitalized!) – page 9

The vast majority of the humor in the first part of The Big Time comes directly from Greta in her capacity as narrator; her observations of the odd cosmos she inhabits and the way in which she relays them to us are as charming as one would hope for from an Entertainer such as herself.  In this particular passage, she acknowledges the ridiculous nature of her situation (as not wholly alive–at least as we understand alive–but still, of course, able to tell the story) and turns it on its head for the sake of comforting the readers.  Rather, she makes herself into as lovable and harmless a character as Illy by twisting her status as Demon, dead, into a silly quirk.  After all, how could you think of someone who teasingly accuses readers of, upon meeting her, either wanting to “yak with [her] or pick [her] up” as a threat?  Her constant self-interruptions present her as endearingly human, too, and make the narrative–particularly in the beginning–come across as more of a journal entry or even as a casual, oral account.  More than that, the way in which Greta tells her story makes it feel all the more real; she puts so much of herself into her delivery of it, all her funny passing thoughts and candid sentiments and genuine emotions, and as a result it becomes quite difficult to experience the story without her humor as the plot progresses into far more serious territory.

Humor as a Device for Estrangement

“I like Illy and not just because he is a sort of tall cross between a spider monkey and a persian cat — though that is a handsome combo when you come to think of it. I like him for himself… But I ask you, how could an arrangement between Illy and me be anything but Platonic?” (Lieber 36).

 I’m really rather fond of Illy’s presence in the story, as his feathery-tentacle-tickling communication methods and odd sayings are comforting in the way that he is described so concretely by Greta. As you can see in the aforementioned quote, Greta is completely honest in describing her disposition to other individuals in the story, and it is a testament to her character to understand how she could find a seven foot tall, fifty pound spider monkey persian cat “handsome,” and how her defense of her Platonic stance hints at an expectation for interspecies intimacy. Interestingly, if we were to make this a more domestic comparison, we could say that their relationship is comparative to a “gay best friend” (not my terminology — and I mean no offense to anyone) vs. lover type of deal, since Illy and Greta are not “simpatico” (36); but by doing this through a comparison of different species, I was taken aback by its outlandishness. In this way, humor in the story seems to work as an estrangement device, one that when translated into a domestic context would not seem as humorous, but would rather be very serious.
 Also, I love the irony with the Platonic relationship considering the fact that apparently Plato is no more because of the operations that the soldiers are participating in.

Greta’s Comical Thought Process

Fritz Leiber’s use of the parentheses and dashes evoke a sense that Greta Frozane is aware of the reader and shares her feelings with them which can often times be comical. For example, in chapter 4 Greta states “I decided the satyr’s English instructor must have been quite a character, too. Wish I’d met him-her-it” (32). Since the story is about time travel, Greta meets all sorts of “its” (people, aliens, other species) and here the dashes create a comical thought process while still reminding the reader of the stories science fiction elements.