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The Punch Escrow Paperback – July 25, 2017
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"It's hard to say enough good things about this hard-science future thriller with humor and heart―an excellent debut." ―Kirkus (starred review)
"Fans of hard sf and time travel will enjoy Klein’s imaginative debut." ―Booklist
"I read a lot of books but haven’t enjoyed one as much as The Punch Escrow in a long time. I picked it up for a cross country flight and didn’t put it down until we landed in New York. Tal Klein creates a plausibly real future that sucks you in and then he powers his story with action, twists and a dash of humor. Young actors will be lining up to play the lead character and any director worth his salt would kill (or at least teleport) for a chance to adapt The Punch Escrow." ―Andy Lewis, Book Editor, The Hollywood Reporter
"Klein transports us to a beautifully rendered near-future world. This is refreshingly original and immersive hard sci-fi. You'll turn the last page and yearn for Joel Byram's next chapter." ―Ben Brock Johnson, host of Codebreaker podcast and NPR Marketplace Tech
"An alt-futuristic hard-science thriller with twists and turns you'll never see coming. I couldn't put it down." ―Felicia Day, author of You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)
"A compelling, approachable human narrative wrapped around a classic hard sci-fi nugget, The Punch Escrow dives into deep philosophical territory―the ethical limits of technology, and what it means to be human. Cinematically paced yet filled with smart asides, Klein's Punch pulls off the slick trick of giving readers plenty to think about in a suspenseful, entertaining package." ―Sean Gallagher, Ars Technica
"One part adventure journal, one part letter from the future... It's a clever way to explore this brave new world. Darting between The Bourne Identity and Blade Runner, The Punch Escrow travels through time to unwind the global conspiracy theory. Klein has written a quick-witted, self-aware thriller that is addictive and fun." ―Foreword Reviews (starred review)
"A headlong ride through a future where 'huge international corporate conspiracy' is a box you check on a form and teleportation takes you anywhere―it just blows you to bits first." ―Quentin Hardy, Head of Editorial, Google Cloud (formerly Deputy Tech Editor for The New York Times)
"The Punch Escrow has a cool high concept and an action-packed story that will leave your head spinning." ―Daniel H. Wilson, The New York Times bestselling author of Robopocalypse and Clockwork Dynasty
"If I lived in the world of The Punch Escrow, I'd teleport around the world shoving copies of Tal M. Klein’s thrilling, hilarious and whip-smart debut into everyone’s hands. Save me the trip―and buy this novel now." ―Duane Swierczynski, author of Revolver and the bestselling Level 26 series
"A fast-paced near-future sci-fi adventure peppered with exotic technology and cultural references ranging from Karma Chameleon to the Ship of Theseus, The Punch Escrow will have you rooting for its plucky, sarcastic hero as he bounces between religious fanatics, secret agents, corporate hacks and megalomaniacs in a quest to get his life back. If you've ever wanted to get Scotty drunk and ask him some tough questions about how those transporters work exactly, The Punch Escrow is the book for you." ―Robert Kroese, author of The Big Sheep and its sequel, The Last Iota
"This book angered me to my core, because it’s based on an idea that should have occurred to me. The fact that Tal executed it so well, and made such a page-turner out of it, just adds insult to injury." ―Scott Meyer, author of the Magic 2.0 series
"Some writers take us to the future so we can question the effects that technology can have on humanity on a global and personal scale along with the impact upon the social fabric. Others do it to take us on a wild ride made all the more fantastic by pushing the boundaries of what we can expect from the world of tomorrow. Tal Klein masterfully balances both and sets it all to the beat of an 80s soundtrack. An excellent piece of contemporary science fiction." ―J-F. Dubeau, author of A God in the Shed and The Life Engineered
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Longer Review: this is really one of those stories that is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of structure, theme, pace, style, and quality. Right off the bat, I'll say that this is a weak 4 star review, as in, that it's 4 stars mostly on the basis of strong technical quality combined with solid writing mechanics, but that I didn't really LOVE the story itself.
First, the story starts out narrated in the 1st person, and this is how most of the novel progresses ... BUT there are times where the 1st person falters and appears to be more akin to 3rd person with the odd "I" or "we" comment thrown in. In one chapter in particular, the narration covers several events or character thoughts that could not possibly be known to the narrator-character in the moment, so this causes a jarring effect from the rest of novel.
Second, the first few chapters of the novel start out in the present tense referring to past events, but then rather quickly we, the reader, are caught up with the story and now the narrator-character is discussing current events ... until later he begins using past tense phrasing again. This creates a confusing sense of time with the narrative, and effectively retroactively soils the initial first-person foreshadowing the author does.
Third, the first half of the novel is populated by 20+ footnotes clarifying techno-jargon that the author uses. This element is a bit of a mixed bag: on the one hand, it's helpful and allows the reader to understand the context of the fictional slang or jargon used. On the other hand, most of the time this is awkwardly done, as the footnotes are lengthy and dense and not always all that clarifying. In some cases, the footnote is even redundant, as reading the note, then returning to the narrative reveals that the author gives some of the same context in the next few lines, but this time imbedded in the actual narrative. In general, the use of footnotes in a fictional work is a bit odd, since one wonders why the author couldn't just find a way to work any necessary exposition into the larger narrative in a smooth and natural way, rather than requiring whole breaks away from the story.
Further technical gripes I have will be covered in a spoiler-ish bit later, but beyond the above items, the story at times struggles with the style and the pacing it wants to use. For example, the story starts out sharply witty and sarcastic with an easy to digest style and pulls you in. But later it slows down, becomes much more procedural, loses much of its charm at times, and tends to stagger through action sequences while eschewing some needed scene setting. More specifically, and oddly, the author will give long-winded descriptions of things like the shirt a character is wearing, but not of distances or spatial dimensions or how many people are present in a given situation or what they're doing. This becomes especially problematic during the novel's finale.
So that's some of the cons. Overall, despite all of that, the narrative is solid, the writing style is modern and generally easy to digest and quick and interesting. The concepts explored are compelling and beg some philosophical consideration, and in general, events played out differently from what I expected. This was a decent and somewhat original exploration of the advantages and pitfalls of teleportation in the future. Additionally, since this appears to be the author's first published work, I'll cut him some slack and default upwards to a 4 star, even though, to me, this felt more like a 3 star novel.
Now, be warned --- HERE THAR BE SPOILERS!!!
<spoiler> The author does a pretty good job making this a very technically sound sci-fi, but also, at times he throws out so much techno-jargon that it becomes obvious the author is not actually a physicist, and that he's covering the lack of first-hand knowledge with lots of bluster (see LITERALLY ANY freshman college student). This becomes more obvious when the author fails to adequately describe the appearance or functionality of many technologies associated with this future world. In particular, the author introduces the use of nanites as a part of how "printer" and teleportation technology works. I have some extreme doubts about the practicality of this type of thing, but setting that aside for the moment, the author describes a destructive, self-sustaining function of these nanites, but also describes how they're contained and kept from literally eating the world. That's excellent, and shows good attention to detail ... except that later, in a pivotal scene, a character makes a threat about extending the "cage" for the nanites to 40 kilometers. This does not jibe with previous use of this technology, and raises the question of just HOW exactly the nanites are contained. Clearly not by any physical barrier, which is what the author had previously implied but not clearly stated. So is it just a program trigger? If Nanite X exceeds Y distance from Control Point Z, then self-terminate? But related to this ... WHY can this character set the range to 40 kilometers? Given the practical uses for nanites as described in the book, this makes no sense. There is no reasonable scenario in which a normal person, using this technology in a non-terrorist function, would need the nanites to operate at a range of 40 kilometers. It also, of course, raises the question of HOW the range is that far ... most people's cell phones probably can't operate if more than 40 kilometers from a tower, how the hell are literally-smaller-than-microscopic robots managing the feat?
This is the biggest logical failing in the novel. But in general, the author describes various technologies and how they're used, and one starts wondering ... but why? Or how? For every time the author provides a footnote that gives excellent clarification or setups up clear and logical limitations, he then creates a scenario that fails just as much.
Few smaller gripes: first, the author describes a large passenger plane that can lift off like a helicopter in this story as a "people-mover". At first, I thought he was using this term as a colloquial joke. But he kept using it in all seriousness, and then, two characters use the term among each other. Literally there is a term for this type of aircraft: it's call a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing).
Secondly, there are some elements in this novel touched upon but then passed right over, despite how much opportunity they gave for greater story nuance or plot conflicts. For example, there's a whole bit about how people coming out of teleportation tended to lose a couple grams of weight, and that this was resolved as being due to "packet-loss" (a computer technical term describing when data is lost for whatever reason during transmission). That's actually a pretty realistic thing to include, and it very specifically sets up a possible dark side of teleportation to explore (Michael Crichton did something very similar to this in "Timeline"). For example, if we're talking about a few grams of body fat lost during teleportation, of course that means nothing. But if you lose several grams of neurons in your brain?? Or the machine fails to teleport a section of your aorta?? Holy crap, that's a problem! But nothing ever comes from this bit.
Finally, the story ends ... and then there's an extra chapter with an unnecessary switchback on one of the plot devices. I found this to be completely unnecessary, a cheap bait-and-switch, and tacked on, with no added value to the story. Not to mention it wasn't entirely logical to the events that preceded it. </spoiler>
Tal has a couple of clever ideas, but his vision of Earth 200 years in the future isn't fully (or in my opinion even adequately) fleshed out. Really, people are still listening to Karma Chameleon two hundred years in the future? Really, people are still using hashtags two hundred years in the future? The 80's references are a poor attempt to get us to relate to this future, and it doesn't work. It's just discordant. It felt a lot like putting Gen-Xers in a star trek world.
Don't get me wrong, it was okay, but I had to wonder about all those stellar reviews. They really oversold this story, and I was very let down. I think the author really should read some Kim Stanley Robinson and see how many hashtags he finds in the Mars series. (A hint: none, because we won't be using them anymore)
"The transporter malfunctioned" is a fairly common trope, and this book explores it well, with maybe a new idea or two to throw into the ring.
But if you discover this book, you'll find a reasonable read extrapolating current technology to a century or more in the future. Good characters that you can root for, and an exploration of the classic Star Trek discussion: What does the transporter actually do?