The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I didn't know anything about this book or author when I stumbled upon it at the library. Usually in my reading I get a sense of what buzzworthy books coming out I might like, but I hadn't heard a peep about this one. Nevertheless, I picked it up and skimmed the back cover, then read the intro. (Admittedly, the front-page quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also piqued my curiosity.)
If you're reading this, then you're officially in charge of figuring out what to do next. I'm off the hook, probably because I'm dead. Consider the baton passed. Hooray for you.
Now that, my friends, is a hook. A snarky voice to grab the reader, and the implication of something big, life-threatening, and life-changing. After I saw that, I just had to check this book out.
This is a hard science fiction thriller set in the year 2147, with technology leaps and bounds beyond what we see today. I am a layperson, and I'm sure a real quantum physicist would be quick to point out the holes in this, but it's evident that the author has done a great deal of research to back up his extrapolation. (Some of this research shows up in the abundant footnotes in the first few chapters. Obviously, there is a danger that including footnotes will yank the reader out of the story, but since it's already been established that this is a document written after the fact, with the explicit intent of informing a future reader about this incident and warning them to keep on the lookout, some explanations for the in-story future reader, as well as the real-world reader, are in order. Not to mention there's a lot of snarky humor in this book, and this real-world reader, at least, can forgive a great many footnotes if that's the case.) Among other things, we have "replication printing," nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (including self-driving vehicles that insult their passengers, and apps that are regarded by many humans as members of their family), neural stem implants that function as everyone's phone/Internet access...and teleportation. Teleportation is the technology that goes horribly wrong and kicks the plot into gear.
All of which is fine and fascinating, and worthless without interesting characters to support it. Our protagonist, Joel Byram, definitely passes this test. His voice is the glue that holds the book together, even when he's writing chapters from points of view not his own (which is made possible by the existence of the implants, the "comms"). He's not a superspy or ex-military type. He's a nerdy Everyguy (who loves "obscure 80's new wave"--Culture Club, of all groups, is namechecked and quoted) thrown into an impossible situation. Sometimes, as the story makes clear, he comes across as a total asshole, but he's a stubborn, persistent, determined asshole who steps up and wins out.
In fact, the only reason I didn't give this book five stars is because the author's handling of the female lead, Joel's wife Sylvia, could have...been better, shall we say. She makes the mistake that sets the plot in motion, and she has some agency, but she also winds up needing to be rescued, and that gets old. Also, there is an unnecessary coda that is an obvious set-up for a sequel and detracts from the emotional punch of the ending. Still, this is a very good story, and well worth your time.
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