Friday, July 16, 2021

"The Punch Escrow" by Tal M. Klein--Fiction Review

In today’s review, we’re going teleporting—just like in “Star Trek.” But unlike that show most of the time, we’re really going to dive into the ramifications of that kind of technology with Tal M. Klein’s “The Punch Escrow.”

Tal M. Klein

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***   

What I love about this book:

I’ve heard of “The Ship of Theseus” thought experiment before, but this book managed to cement it in my mind better than anything else because it directly ties into the plot’s central conflict. In sum—the paradox is—Theseus’s ship was kept in port as a monument for generations. Over the years, planks, ropes, et cetera would rot and need to be replaced, and they’d be replaced with carefully crafted replicas to match the original components. Eventually, every piece of the ship is replaced in this manner. The ship in the harbor is the same in every regard, but is it still Theseus’s ship? If not, when did it stop being Theseus’s ship? 

As any good sci-fi should, “The Punch Escrow” tackles big questions and invites the audience to examine them from every angle. The ever revelatory question of; what does it mean to be human? Is a question that recurs throughout literature—not just sci-fi. The question might be the same, but the answers change based on the context in my experience. Since this is a story about teleportation, the human question and what makes you—you question are intertwined. Are you just the matter that makes up your body? Or are you a pattern of thoughts, a continuity of experience? There is a lot to consider in this book, and I love that.

The pacing in “The Punch Escrow” is quick—in my opinion. Klein never meanders too long in any one spot, and his characters are constantly in motion to the next thing. It’s not that I’m against slower-paced stories, but I always feel initial stories in a series or standalone novels are better served by not resting too much and being a more kinetic experience. For me, you have to earn those slow moments. They can be great for character development, but if I don’t know enough about why I should be interested in a character, I’m wary of the idea of sitting around waiting for them to tell me who they are.

What I don’t love about this book:

I don’t know why exactly, but I thought there would be more to this story—more locations, more conflicts, and more characters. With its quick pacing, which I like, it nevertheless felt like a third or maybe half of a longer story. The big cliffhanger ending felt less like a tease into another story and more like part of the rising action to me.  

Okay, so there is a trope in sci-fi—cliché really—where the protagonist is oddly obsessed with something in our contemporary time. “Star Trek” did it, that terrible “I, Robot” movie with Will Smith did it, and all of “Ready Player One (and Two)” are stories built around it. And I get the function—create a character who can seem contemporary, in knowledge at least, to short circuit the audience into identifying with them. “The Punch Escrow” does it with Joel’s love of 1980’s new wave music—it comes up more than once. As for if this element works in this story, I’d say it works fine, but personally, I’m skeptical of nostalgia, which is a big part of why as time has gone on, stories that feature an homage to the ‘80s or— heaven forbid—the ‘90s, creep me out.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“The Punch Escrow” starts with Joel Byram, our protagonist, jumping around in his story—and creating an excuse, narratively speaking, to dump some info about the world he lives in. After a bit with a framing story, where Joel is telling some mysterious Turkish strangers why he thinks the company responsible for teleportation is trying to kill him, we jump back to before Joel had serious problems.

In fact, when we get to him waking up in his apartment, his biggest problem is he’s late on his way to his tenth anniversary, which is bad because he and his wife Sylvia are going through a rough spot in their marriage. To make it to his anniversary dinner only reasonably late, he has to teleport, using one of International Transport’s teleportation stations. His wife also happens to work for International Transport as one of their best and brightest. When he arrives, the night is cut short, not because of the tension—which there is plenty of in spades—but because work calls Sylvia back into the office to fix a problem only she can handle. She reassures Joel that soon, they would be on their vacation in Costa Rica, and nothing will come between them there.

Of course, in Costa Rica, something does come between them—the biggest crisis of their lives. The transport station Joel is teleporting to meet his wife at for vacation is destroyed by a terrorist suicide bomber. Sylvia assuming her husband has just been killed in the explosion, uses her knowledge in a way she isn’t supposed to and “finishes” Joel’s teleportation. The problem with that is the Joel back at home was never “cleared,” a euphemism for disintegrated. So now there are two Joels.

The title of this book, “The Punch Escrow,” refers to a safety feature, the punch escrow. In light of the Mona Lisa’s destruction, via teleportation accident, if a teleport can’t be successfully completed, the process reverses itself, and the subject is returned to the point of departure, no harm, no foul. The problem is it’s a lie. There is no escrow that the person is held in before the teleport is completed. The departing person is just copied, in every detail, and constructed locally at the receiving station—then the original person gets vaporized or, put more simply, murdered.

A fundamentalist group captures Sylvia and Joel in Costa Rica needs to mount a rescue attempt despite being—well, just a lazy guy who is good at messing with AIs. Meanwhile, Joel in New York is desperately trying to stay alive and get to Costa Rica as the International Transport corporation attempts to “clear” him the old-fashioned way—with violence. After explaining to him that they’re only doing it because he has a double, in Costa Rica, with his wife—and after all, he wouldn’t exist if everything went to plan. They’re principled murderers like that. 

When New York Joel finally makes it to Costa Rica, he finds his double’s rescue mission hasn’t gone well—shocker. To be fair, though, it had been interrupted when Sylvia’s boss—who has gone a little bit nutso—showed up at the compound, made sure everyone was dead, or mostly dead in Costa Rica Joel’s case. Then he kidnapped Sylvia. The two Joels have to work together to rescue their wife from her boss with the help of some other dissidents that resist International Transport. They succeed, but it looks like Costa Rica Joel is lost along with the boss.

At the very end, though, the boss is revealed to not be dead. A copy of him lived on in long-term storage, and there is no telling what he’ll do next.


A few times, early on, Klein engages in the infamous info dump, but I didn’t mind it much because he interweaves it with other—short story-like elements—about this world. I particularly liked his explanation of “The Ship of Theseus” as it related to a Big Mac and what happened to the original Mona Lisa. It got transported, then scrambled, and was never recovered.   

The debate between; we are fundamentally the matter that makes us up, or we are the continuity of our experiences—is a mind-bending one. The knee-jerk reaction is, we are who we are, and if our body is destroyed and an exact replica is made somewhere else, that isn’t us. But why “The Ship of Theseus” thought experiment is so important to this story is because we are all ships of Theseus. What I mean by that is when we age, our cells divide and multiply. In every generation of cells, some wear out and are destroyed and replaced with exact replicas. Throughout your life, every cell gets replaced multiple times. Are you not the person you were when you were born, or when you were six—or whatever age you like in the past? 

Parting thoughts:

As we develop nanotechnology further, “The Ship of Theseus” paradox will inevitably become an issue, no matter what. We will have to come to grips with it even if teleportation never becomes a thing. Just so you know, currently, the smallest thing we can make is a transistor that is only 6 nanometers in length. For context, viruses usually come in somewhere between 20 nanometers and 500 nanometers.   

Imagine someday in the future, you have a weak wall between the chambers in your heart. The answer to that problem today is simple as it is crude—crack open your chest, scoop out that heart, and put in a suitable replacement—simple, if inelegant. But let’s imagine now that you have tiny little machines that hang out in your circulatory system. Their whole existence is predicated on keeping you healthy and replicating a suitable number of replacements of themselves from the trace materials you ingest. 

Sure your immune system might have something to say about that—but let’s imagine we’ve worked a way around that problem. After all, anyone with an autoimmune issue can tell you firsthand that the human immune system ain’t all it’s cracked up to be in the smarts category. 

But let’s get back to our tiny machine friends hanging out in your blood. They notice your weak wall in your heart. They devise a way to replace the damaged parts of your heart by repurposing themselves into something that integrates right into the organ. It works like a charm, and no surgery was needed. You might never even consciously realize anything dramatic happened. It wouldn’t be appropriate to now call you a machine. After all, the synthetic part of your heart isn’t even most of the organ in your chest—and we have such things as artificial hearts today. We don’t call the recipients of those robots.

If you can’t see where this is going, you haven’t been paying attention. Eventually, those little machines in your blood will do that to everything. Every bit of you will slowly and gradually be replaced in this manner. At what point do you go from being a person—with thoughts, hopes, and dreams—to a soulless machine that has no rights in human society?

So are we the matter that makes us up, or are we the continuity?

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