Just in Time


Harry Burns, a cynical Wall Street stockbroker, wakes up naked except for some strips of fur, and lying on what seems to be a forest floor. Soon he is discovered by a menacing group of men who are similarly arrayed, and their hostile behavior leads him inexorably, although amazingly, to the conclusion that he has been captured by a fragile, endangered hunter/gatherer society somewhere in the Pleistocene era. Still cursed or blessed with his wry and savvy twenty-first-century consciousness, he understands that his suspicious hosts will kill him unless he can be immediately useful to them.

Desperate to save his life and to endear himself somehow to his captors, Harry enlists his modern world knowledge to help them defeat a brutal invasion by the feared band of powerful enemies who attack periodically.  He teaches the colony’s men some simple elements of ambush and rudimentary warfare, but when his new “family” exults at the victory they have won thanks to his mysterious sophistication and cunning, he is sickened by the terrible carnage.

After he experiences some of the routine brutalities of the colony’s daily existence, Harry determines to use his knowledge to do good. Anticipating the future he knows, he will try to invent the wheel, create an alphabet, and accelerate progress toward a more peaceful and humane future. He is keenly aware of the ironies that surround these ambitions but he still feels compelled to realize them.

As his relationships with the group’s men and women begin to unfold, Harry is affirmed in this mission by a visit to — or is it a vision of? — the colony’s god Xa, a deeply erotic presence and the only consciousness in this entire universe, except for Harry, who is aware that he comes from the future. Unlike Harry, though, Xa also knows why he has been sent into the past.

Also affirming Harry’s purpose and embracing his addled sanity is the wise elder he calls CC, who supplies some protection from the ever-unpredictable and often violent others. Though Harry is to have two interesting mates and many enlightening, tragic, and gratifying relationships, CC functions as his only real friend; like Harry, he is an eccentric outsider here who is sometimes more suspected and resented for his great knowledge than respected for it. The contrasts between CC and the headstrong, menacing Keke, the society’s most heroic hunter/warrior, illuminate the range between its intriguing margins.

Harry’s relationship with the woman he calls Cloud, an elegant and influential leader who is abused by her powerful mate, provides another stream of tension, and so does the intermittent roaring of terrifying probes routinely dispatched to the area by those who are in fact responsible for Harry’s presence in the colony. They include the formidable Karang, one of the scientists from another galaxy who have proposed and are monitoring Harry’s time travel in the hope of producing a different future than the one we now know.

As he races to introduce advances that will dignify and enhance his adopted people rather than endanger and destroy them, Harry has a second chance to be the human being he never tried to be in his own time — generous, able to savor the moment and live in the present, and aware of his own unique existence as well as his vibrant role in the lives of others. Although his bittersweet and sometimes comical sense of the human condition is all but incommunicable in his new self-contained world, Harry improvises a life for himself and his tribe that leads to an unexpected and liberating future.