As a fan of Michael Crichton, I am drawn to books that feature technology that I can quickly buy into. In The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein, I found myself immediately sucked into, not just the feature technology, but all of the other well-imagined tech in the book. Add an engaging thriller of a plot, and some characters I genuinely liked, and it made for a really enjoyable read.
The Punch Escrow takes place on Earth in the year 2147, and Klein has built a world that I totally expect to come to be someday. It is a society in which the technologies that we are playing with today are completely integrated into their daily lives. Citizens enjoy driverless cars, drone air travel, embedded “comms” that allow for communications with each other, as well, as news feeds, music and interaction with AI personal assistants or AIDEs. The book even spends some time showcasing the future of nanotechnology, and the author paints some interesting ethical pros and cons for that technology. The feature technology of The Punch Escrow, however, is teleportation, the quickest, safest way to travel the Earth, just ask International Transport (IT), the developer of the technology . One of the biggest twists in The Punch Escrow involves the mechanics and safety protocols of the teleportation technology. As a mater f fact, The Punch Escrow IS the safety protocol for teleportation, and the book is named after it. When I got to the big reveal about the protocol, as I read it I had a moment where I actually said “holy s***” out loud.
The story focuses on what happens when a teleportation accident occurs, and Joel Byram, the star and narrator of the story, is duplicated. The teleporter accident is not a new theme to sci-fi, however Klein brings some intriguing additional consequences to the accident that makes the story fresh and exciting, as we explore what, and even who caused the problems, and how that character now has to deal with the fallout of what was created. It is intriguing, and at points, heart wrenching as the story progresses.
The lead character and narrator of The Punch Escrow is Joel Byram, a guy who is really nothing special. He has a job teaching AIs to interact with humans better by integrating humor into their programming. He’s a total smart-ass, so he is perfect for the job. He is also not the typical hero. He is not even the breadwinner of the family. That role falls to his wife, Sylvia, who is working on a secret project at IT, and the long hours are secrecy are straining their marriage. OK, Joel being a smart-ass probably strains their marriage too. It is Joel’s seemingly unherolike qualities that make him an enjoyable hero worth rooting for.
In addition to being the hero, Joel is also the narrator of the book. Here, Klein made some decisions that sometimes muddied the story a bit. Joel was an excellent choice to narrate because of his personality. The book, however, had times where Joel “broke the fourth wall” and spoke directly to the readers. While that convention works for theatrical productions, I was sometimes confused by the statements. I think a straight narration by Joel would have worked better. Of course, there were two Joels, to complicate that issue. Another story-telling technique that slowed the pace of the book was Klein’s use of footnotes from time to time. Again, this was related to his decision to create a story that was being related after-the-fact, like a report, instead of as things developed. The footnotes, while often fun, were sometimes overly long and pulled me from the action, requiring me to re-immerse myself in the story. Neither of these two things, however, derailed my enjoyment of the book. They just slowed my brain down a bit.
Two other interesting choices Klein made were the inclusion of lots of 20th and 21st century pop-culture. Lots of it. I am hoping all of the things that I grew up with like Star Trek and the Culture Club remain so relevant that they are still talked about in 2147, but I am not confident of that, so they seemed shoehorned in. Klein is clearly a pop-culture fan, maybe even an aficionado, and he showcases that in The Punch Escrow. He also includes the Gehinnomites, as the the moral conscience of the story. They are an extreme religious organization that eventually resort to terrorism, a bit sterotypically. The Gehinnomites do, however, provide for some very nice plot twists that surprised me.
Overall, I really enjoyed the storyline of The Punch Escrow, for a few reasons. First, I am totally a believer in the dystopian future where big corporations rule the roost and are less than scrupulous in their efforts to advance their profits. Secondly, I liked the twists and turns, and the ethical dilemmas that the characters faced. It was good for people who like to ponder the moral implications of modern society, however, not overwhelming for people who just like to read without pondering. I also really enjoyed the way the technology integrated seamlessly into the lives of the characters.
As far as the characters go, I very much enjoyed Joel and Joel and Sylvia (no, that is not a typo). I thought those three were well-developed, and I enjoyed both the similarities and the differences between the two Joel characters. A couple of the foils were close to crossing the line into stereotypes. Some of the lesser characters could have used a bit more development, but that would have come at a cost as well, in dragging out the story longer. These are rookie problems that I think Klein will address as he continues to write, and I hope very much that he will continue writing for a long while.
The Punch Escrow has already been optioned by Lionsgate for production into a feature film, and a director has been attached to the project. Not only is the first installment under contract, but sequels as well. As a guy who has a theater background, and who is very visual in his reading, I am already excited for this film. Klein’s story will loan itself to the big screen very well, as Klein has painted some great imagery with his words. I am excited to follow this project into the future.
Final Score 8.75/10
It was a great thriller that offered readers a chilling look at the ethical and moral dilemmas of advancing technology. It has flawed characters that are easy to sympathize with, even when they make questionable decisions. The technology is well thought out and, more importantly, well-researched. Someone (I’m sorry, I cannot find who) once said of science fiction that the technology doesn’t have to be possible, it has to be believable, and this is certainly horrifyingly believable. While a new author, Klein is certain to advance his craft as he continues to write.
+ Enjoyable story with some great twists and turns
+ Flawed and unheroic characters that rise to the occasion
+ Well thought out technology really adds to the flavor of the story
+ A book that offers some great moral and ethical dilemmas to ponder
– A few storytelling techniques that could be rethought (asides and footnotes)
– Some ancillary characters that could use more development
– One antagonist that steps close to stereotypical
Did you read The Punch Escrow? What did you think? Leave me a comment below.
Like this? have a look at other book articles by The Grumpy Geek
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The Grumpy Geek, Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.
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