Sci-fi is like any other genre: there are books designed to thrill us, books designed to blow our minds, and books written to be pure escapism. And then there are those rare books that manage to do all of those things, and make it look effortless. Tal Klein’s The Punch Escrow is one of them. It’s the story of Joel Byram, a resident of the year 2147, a time when teleportation is a common way of travel—and what happens when a terrorist attack causes a jaunt to go terribly wrong, plunging him into worldwide political, religious, and philosophical conflicts.
Klein’s debut effort comes to us via the crowd-funded publishing enterprise Inkshares, after winning the reader-voted Geek & Sundry Hard Science Contest last year, which is pretty much aces in terms of genre cred. If you’re not yet convinced this is a story that will gab you: Lions Gate Entertainment has already secured the film rights—which makes sense, because aside from being the smartest sci-fi book you’ll read this month (or most months), it’s also incredibly cinematic. Did we mention it’s smart? Here are five super smart things Klein to make The Punch Escrow stand out.
1. He Makes You Look at Transporter Beams in a Whole New Way
Teleportation is nothing new to sci-fi, and Klein knows it—and does something new. After a conflict known as The Last War completely reorganized civilization and put corporations in charge of governing, he introduces teleportation by explaining how the Mona Lisa was irrevocably lost in the earliest days of the practice, after a freak solar storm interrupted its transmission. The dangers of being disassembled in one place and reassembled in another have been employed plenty (most hilariously by Douglas Adams, but also in countless episodes of Star Trek), but Klein uses this unfortunate event to bring up the real innovation that makes teleportation the defining technology of the future: The Punch Escrow, which keeps the person teleporting in their original spot and doesn’t release them until they have arrived at their destination intact, about four seconds before they left (we said this book was smart, we didn’t say it wouldn’t mess with your head a bit).
2. He Plays with Known Unknowns
If you’re thinking you’ve already guessed the secret behind the Punch Escrow because you once read The Prestige, don’t get too cocky—Klein has plenty of surprises in store for you. While the truth behind teleportation—a technology controlled solely by a nearly-omnipotent corporation known as International Transport (IT)—might not shock the experienced sci-fi fan, the real trick is that by the time you’ve tumbled onto itssecret, he’s extrapolated off of it in unexpected ways, knocking you off-balance as he twists his story into knots.
3. His Protagonists are Smart
The narrator is Joel Byram, married to a woman who works for IT on a super-secret project called Honeycomb. Joel’s a fantastic character, because he’s smart and relatable. He makes a living “salting” artificial intelligences, which are generally eager to improve their approximation of human intellect and personality, so they pay people like Joel to teach them something—like a sense of humor, or the subtleties of double entendres. If you’re thinking you could probably write an entire separate novel about that subject alone, you’re absolutely right, but Klein has seeded the entire novel with those sorts of casually brilliant bits. This also serves to make Joel believable when he starts to use his intellect to survive without making him into a supernaturally omniscient Marty Sue. Also, you’ll note we said protagonists, but you’ll just have to read the book to find out what we’re talking about.
4. He Doesn’t Shy Away from Complexity
Klein clearly enjoys digging into the implications of a world organized around corporations and teleportation, in which the Last War sparked a merger of the three largest religions into one, and splinter groups focus their fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts on teleportation as an evil blight, with dark implications for the soul. Once Joel (and the reader) realize the truth behind how teleportation works, Klein has a deliriously fun time tracing the probable course of corporate R&D, with the result that the secret project Joel’s wife Sylvia is working on becomes simultaneously horrifying and absolutely inevitable. Along the way, all the characters have to deal with the nearly-insoluble dilemmas that stem from what happens when teleportation goes really, really wrong.
5. He knows How to Thrill
Any sci-fi novel packed with this many ideas (including lengthy footnotes explaining the very real science behind them) could threaten to be a too dense to call “fun,” but Klein solves for that with an engagingly smart-assed narrator first, as expert pacing and skill in depicting action second. Joel spends the early parts of the story confused and at the mercy of various powers beyond his control, but Klein soon moves him into position to affect the course of events—and shows a talent for nail-biting tension and good old-fashioned fight scenes, futuristic car-theft-via-salting, and rescues. You could describe this as a sci-fi novel packed with action, or a thriller with some amazing sci-fi ideas, and both would be right.
The Punch Escrow is fantastic.—a smart book that assumes its audience is smart too. The movie version will be awesome—but the book is already better.