August 17, 2017
(+++) PUNCHED OR PUNKED?
The Punch Escrow. By Tal M. Klein. Inkshares. $14.99.
Everyone wants to be the next William Gibson, write the next Neuromancer, and start the next cyberpunk craze. Well, maybe not everyone, but plenty of authors do seem to harbor this fantasy. Add Tal M. Klein to the list. The Punch Escrow is too clever by half, too sure of its own cleverness, too self-referential, too futuristic-but-with-nods-to-now, to be fully effective, but its snarky narration and cinematic pacing are supposed to add up to a book too gripping to put down. Unfortunately the sum does not tally, but it is fun watching what works and what doesn’t, riding along the roller coaster for the ups and downs and ignoring the stretches of straightaway.
Take that title, which is overly clever by half, or rather by two-thirds (only “The” isn’t pushing it). Here the word “Punch” refers to 17th-century theologian John Punch (also known as John Ponce or Johannes Poncius), now remembered primarily for stating Ockham’s Razor in a form that remains extant today (albeit without attributing it to William of Ockham). The phrase itself is usually paraphrased as something along the lines of “simple explanations trump complex ones,” and that is a lot of freight for a single word of a book’s title to carry. And there is more: “Escrow” here carries its common (well, reasonably common) meaning of something held by a third party (that is, in escrow) pending fulfillment of a particular promise or event. Oh yes, there is a lot in that title.
What is promised in The Punch Escrow is teleportation. But teleportation is immensely complicated and really, in Klein’s novel, impossible in the form in which readers typically think of it. Something simpler can accomplish the same thing; hence the reference to Punch and thus to Ockham. Simply store a copy of a person (hold it in escrow, see?), and re-create the person at whatever location he or she wants to visit – using nanobots to destroy the original (or, more accurately, previous) person. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer, of course, is “one heck of a lot.” The book is narrated by Joel Byram, who in the year 2147 has a job teaching AIs to behave in more-human ways. It’s a living, but not an especially lucrative one – most of the money comes from his wife, Sylvia, a high-ranking scientist at International Transport, the company that controls teleportation and is in effect a nation unto itself (one of many unoriginal ideas offered by Klein as if they are original). Joel and Sylvia have been having a tough time in their marriage and decide to try to rekindle things with a little anniversary getaway, but after Sylvia teleports to Costa Rica, a terrorist attack (another unoriginal notion) stops Joel dead in his tracks. Or at least seems to stop him dead – that is the linchpin of the novel. Believing Joel gone forever, Sylvia gets his duplicate out of escrow and re-creates him; but now there are two Joels, and that is never, ever, ever supposed to happen. Soon Sylvia and Joel are in deep doo-doo, not only with International Transport (“IT,” get it?) but also with the folks behind the anti-IT terrorism.
Joel-as-narrator is far too deeply in love with his own cleverness, which he displays through a lengthy series of footnotes intended to explain his society without bogging down the chase-and-escape routine in anything as dull as, you know, narrative exposition. But Klein does not make Joel nearly as clever as he thinks he makes Joel. One reason is the multiple references to modern (that is, real-world-21st-century) technology and information security: they are cute for the “in” crowd of presumed readers but, really, would have been hopelessly outdated by the year in which The Punch Escrow takes place. Another reason is that Klein’s version of giving Joel a personality involves having him dredge up silly 20th-century pop-culture references, which are real groaners. Stuck in a room at one point, conversing with the ever-present AI, Joel sees a way out because “the poor app was so starved for attention, I almost felt bad for it.” So he asks its name and is duly told it “has not taken on a name yet” but is contemplating choosing one that starts with the letter T. This is a pathetically obvious plot-device setup, and Klein uses it in a pathetically obvious way, having Joel think, “I pity the fool” and then address the room as “Mr. T.” Everyone get that reference to The A-Team? Anybody find it funny? Anybody care? Readers had better care, because this sort of thing is about all the personality development that Klein provides where Joel is concerned. And it is more than he offers for Sylvia or anyone else.
The speedy pacing and sarcastic tone of The Punch Escrow make a lot of it fun to read – and a lot of it tiresome. Readers’ enjoyment of the book will depend on how much they like the predictable-but-still-exciting plotting and to what extent they find the genuinely witty moments worth waiting for (and the non-witty ones worth wading through: this is a book that includes a dog named Peeve – “pet Peeve,” get it?). Klein’s sort-of-SF, sort-of-thriller format is not really the harbinger of any new genre: it is a somewhat creaky mashup of existing ones. There is enough fun in The Punch Escrow so at least some readers will be glad to read the end-of-book setup for a sequel, but others will just be glad that it is the end of the book.