Tal M. Klein's thought-provoking and laugh-inducing near-future novel, The Punch Escrow, follows the adventure of our hero, Joel, who, in the course of teleporting to meet his wife on vacation in Costa Rica, suffers an technology glitch and is accidentally...duplicated.
Published at the end of July, The Punch Escrow has accumulated not only reader praise but a number of questions, which Klein answers below.
This book is nothing like Ready Player One. Why is it advertised as "The Next Ready Player One"?
Tal M. Klein: I’m assuming that whomever is reading this knows an author has very little control over how their book is marketed. That stated, I think the comparison merits a worthwhile discussion on the subject of “comps,” or comparable properties. When an author submits a manuscript, agents and publishers will often ask, “What are the comps for your story?” This question doesn’t translate to “What other stories is this one exactly like?” but rather, “Who is the target audience for your book?” In other words, they’re not looking for the manuscript to be the next chapter in any existing world, but what other books are sitting on the manuscript’s intended audience’s shelves. In the case of The Punch Escrow, I submitted three comps: Ready Player One, The Martian, and Off to Be the Wizard. If you imagine a Venn diagram of the respective fans of each of these books, it is my hypothesis that The Punch Escrow sits roundly in the overlapping center of that Venn diagram. That doesn’t mean everyone who loved Ready Player One is going to love my book, nor does it mean everyone who loves The Punch Escrow is going to love Ready Player One; it just means that if someone liked one, they might also enjoy the other—“might” being the operative word. As the manuscript was being passed around in Hollywood, the Ready Player One comp seemed to be the most resonant, and once Greg Silverman (the former head of Warner Bros., who bought the rights for Ready Player One) dubbed it, “The next Ready Player One,” it stuck.
Why would the Da Vinci Exhibition curators ever allow the Mona Lisa to be teleported from Rome to New York in lieu of another, safer transportation method?
It’s interesting that this has become such a controversial aspect of the story because it’s based on a real incident: the September 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111. Pablo Picasso's 1963 work Le Peintre (The Painter) was part of the flight's cargo and was destroyed in the crash, along with over 200 passengers. Could we accuse its sender to be negligent because “air freight isn’t safe”? By 2109, the time of the Da Vinci Exhibition in the world of The Punch Escrow, teleportation of inanimate objects was already an established freight transport method. It’s not like the Mona Lisa was the first object to be teleported. Heck, it wasn't even the first exhibit teleported on that day. In the chapter, Joel further goes on to explain that had the Mona Lisa been transported in other medium that day, it stood the same (if not greater) chance of being destroyed as a result of the coronal mass ejection event.
After Joel learns the clandestine secret of teleportation, why would he ever set foot in a teleportation chamber again?
I can’t force readers to suspend disbelief, but the fact is both Joels were driven by the urgency of their wife’s peril. Both were willing to risk their lives to save hers. If that meant teleporting, even after learning its true clockwork, both Joels were willing to do so to achieve their immediate aims. I agree doing so was foolhardy, but love makes us do crazy things. Neither Joel “trusted” teleportation after their respective duplication, but by their reckoning they had no other options. Once Sylvia was safe, Joel affirmed neither he nor Sylvia would ever set foot in a teleporter again.
Questions from the Amazon Book Review:
The Punch Escrow is now in film development. How did you pitch it—and how do you describe it to potential readers?
I pitched it as “The next Ready Player One” of course! I kid, I kid. I pitched it as a character-driven, hard sci-fi technothriller with a love story at its core set in a non-dystopian near-future. At the risk of revisiting the topic of comps again, in Hollywood we said things like, The Martian meets War Games, Looper on a date with Her, or Brazil tickles Gattaca. Ultimately, the stuff that got people in Hollywood excited were Joel’s voice, the intersection of identity and technology, and the non-dystopian future setting. When I describe it to prospective readers, I usually say something like: Joel Byram is an everyday guy in 2147 New York who gets haphazardly duplicated while teleporting to a second honeymoon in Costa Rica. The company that runs teleportation wants to “fix the bug” by getting rid of one of the duplicates, religious zealots want to use Joel’s circumstance as propaganda, and his wife is kidnapped by a rogue scientist. Now Joel is fighting to save his life and in his wife in a world that has two of him.
There’s a good amount of hard science in your book. How much research did you do to come up with a plausible teleportation scenario?
I did a ton of research. Three years’ worth. I’m not a scientist, so I relied upon a team of friends in various scientific fields to teach and help me create Earth 2147. Warning, from here on this answer contains **spoilers**. There are actually two distinct teleportation mechanisms in the book. The first is “classic” teleportation—the type we know and are experimenting with today—where objects are scanned, their metadata transmitted somewhere else, and then used to build an entirely new version of that object out of different materials there. If we take two particles in New York, entangle them, and send one to Costa Rica, then we can use that property of entanglement to teleport something between them. If we have an object we want to teleport, all we have to do is include that object in the entanglement. This is the type of teleportation used until the Da Vinci Exhibition in 2109. An unfortunate side effect of this process is that the very act of scanning an object necessitates its destruction. The Punch Escrow introduces one innovation to the “classic” method: The object is scanned without being destroyed, meaning it can be verified to have been constructed at its destination and then destroyed at the origin. Net net: this makes teleportation safe, but a side effect is that it means we can create any object, anywhere. It eliminates the one-to-one rule of “classic” teleportation.
In The Punch Escrow, countries don’t exist anymore, and corporations are the new form of nation-state. Is this something you’re concerned about—or support?
I’m a pragmatic optimist. I believe that in the same way democracies transcended monarchies, democracy as we know it is becoming untenable. I worked with an anthropologist to try and develop a thesis on what signals from today’s society might give us clues about tomorrow’s. The strongest signal we landed on was that elected politicians’ roles are shifting away from generating goodwill—that is, relying on altruistic acts of public service to get reelected. The shift is towards generating reelection war chests by accommodating the wants of corporate interests—who, in turn, fund reelection propaganda campaigns. More simply: elected officials’ jobs have shifted from serving the populace to serving corporate interests, because the latter is a more reliable path to reelection. Therefore, if we’re looking for pragmatic efficiencies, as politicians themselves morph into an arbitrary abstraction layer between the public and the corporations, would it not make sense to cut out the middleman? Some people might perceive this kind of outcome as dystopian, but I don’t see it as particularly worse than the current state of affairs.
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