THE PUNCH ESCROW by Tal M. Klein
Kirkus Star

THE PUNCH ESCROW

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this sci-fi thriller, a man fights for his wife and his lives after he’s duplicated in a transporter malfunction.

In 2147, the Last War ended half a century ago. Now the world is run mostly by corporations, which provide basic needs and run the global economy with the help of nanotechnology, which, among other advancements, has made human teleportation possible. Narrator Joel Byram is a “salter”—that is, he poses puzzles to artificial intelligence applications, hoping to stump them and improve their decision algorithms. He loves ’80s pop music and his wife, Sylvia, a quantum microscopy engineer. She works for International Transport, the company with a monopoly on teleportation thanks to its proprietary Punch Escrow technology. (Anything teleported is held in “escrow” until its arrival is confirmed; quantum entanglement is involved.) After a recent promotion, Sylvia has been working on a secret project that eats all her time, and the couple has drifted apart. Sylvia suggests a 10th anniversary vacation to Costa Rica, their honeymoon spot and one of the world’s few remaining off-the-grid locations. But as Joel is teleporting, a suicide bomber attacks, and he finds himself still in Greenwich Village, though he’s reported dead. At IT headquarters, Joel learns that Sylvia, already in Costa Rica, has panicked and done the unthinkable: used Escrow technology to restore him, creating a duplicate Joel. With several well-organized yet shadowy forces arrayed against them, both Joels must use all their combined experiences in manipulating AIs to rescue each other and Sylvia and stop a mad genius’s nefarious plans.

Technology is important to debut author Klein’s novel, particularly the truth about how transportation really works, but character drives the story as much or more. Throughout, the narrator (whether Joel or Joel No. 2) has an appealing voice and presence. He’s funny, a bit of a smartass, but thoughtful, concerned about his marriage, and, in the face of mortal danger, grimly determined to do anything to rescue his wife. The duplicate-Joel plot has an extra payoff in how Joel is forced to contemplate some of his less admirable qualities when he sees them in his double. Klein’s worldbuilding is superb, especially effective for how he blends nifty gee-whiz stuff with characterization. For example, in 2147, engineered mosquitoes eat pollution and piss water. They’re saving the planet…but Joel hates the thought of being rained on from mosquito bladders and can’t stop complaining about it. Seeing how well Klein has thought through his premise is a great pleasure of the book. He also offers philosophical food for thought regarding identity and originality that recalls Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But readers with less taste for technology and ideas can still be drawn into the book’s twisty plot, unexpected turns, cunning plans, action, and struggle, plus entertaining matches of wit between Joel/Joel2 and various artificial intelligences. The ’80s pop music that threads through the book is another enjoyable feature.

It’s hard to say enough good things about this hard-science future thriller with humor and heart—an excellent debut.

Pub Date: July 25th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-942645-58-0
Page count: 356pp
Publisher: Geek & Sundry
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2017




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