The year was 1985 (not 1955 as Amazon asserts, nor 1989 as another reviewer states) and I was in this small combo book/video store on Antoine Rd. in Houston, Texas. Tor had just put out the first two paperbacks in their new "New Writers" series, or as they called it "The New Ace Science Fiction Specials". It was meant to be a series highlighting new authors in the genre, but as far as I know, these were the only two books ever published (a point of pride with Howard). They both looked interesting, so I bought both of them. The first book was William Gibson's "Neuromancer", the other was this one. I found both books to be unique and a departure from the usual sci-fi fare, however it was this one that really stuck with me.
I normally only read a book once, because i tend to remember too much of the story to make subsequent re-reads unbearable. This one I found a bit different and have probably read it a dozen times over, though not always as the author intended. Essentially, this is 3 lightly interwoven stories, connected together only tangentially by that wonderful sci-fi concept of "time travel" -- here used as a literal deus-ex-machina. Two of the stories take place in the same time-lijne, and the third taking place in an alternate time-line where a number of key events in history never occurred, placing the protagonist in a very interesting and different "America". I found the entire story engrossing and well woven together and none of the individual story lines really lacking in concept and excitement.
The book opens on an archeological dig in the mid-west where he scientists are desperately trying to complete their work before the rains and new dam project erase their site from history. It is important to remember this fact throughout the entire book as I believe it underlies one of the themes that Howard was addressing. The second story is about a group of soldiers sent into the past to prevent a 3rd world war, way overshooting their mark and the results of their action. The final story is the one of the soldier's advance scout, who apparently did end up in the right time, just not the right time-line.
Now, each story could have been told as its own short story, and indeed they each work perfectly fine as their own standalone stories, none needing any support from the other stories. How can I say this? Well about 5 years after having last read it, I went back and did a little experiment to test that theory. Luckily each chapter is headed by the story-line title which made it easy to do. I was very impressed with that feat, so I decided to try another experiment: I read the book back-to-front, chapter by chapter. Amazingly, the story still works well that way. It's an amazing accomplishment.
My title says, this is one of two books I would save if required. Guess what, the other isn't Neuromancer. (If you must know, it's "The Unadulterated Cat" by Terry Pratchett.