Tal M. Klein’s ‘The Punch Escrow’ an excellent debut

In Tal M. Klein’s “The Punch Escrow,” a man fights for his wife and his lives after he’s duplicated in a transporter malfunction.

In 2147, the Last War ended half a century ago. Now the world is run mostly by corporations, which provide basic needs and run the global economy with the help of nanotechnology, which, among other advancements, has made human teleportation possible. Narrator Joel Byram is a “salter”—that is, he poses puzzles to artificial intelligence applications, hoping to stump them and improve their decision algorithms. He loves ’80s pop music and his wife, Sylvia, a quantum microscopy engineer. She works for International Transport, the company with a monopoly on teleportation thanks to its proprietary Punch Escrow technology. (Anything teleported is held in “escrow” until its arrival is confirmed; quantum entanglement is involved.) After a recent promotion, Sylvia has been working on a secret project that eats all her time, and the couple has drifted apart. Sylvia suggests a 10th anniversary vacation to Costa Rica, their honeymoon spot and one of the world’s few remaining off-the-grid locations. But as Joel is teleporting, a suicide bomber attacks, and he finds himself still in Greenwich Village, though he’s reported dead. At IT headquarters, Joel learns that Sylvia, already in Costa Rica, has panicked and done the unthinkable: used Escrow technology to restore him, creating a duplicate Joel. With several well-organized yet shadowy forces arrayed against them, both Joels must use all their combined experiences in manipulating AIs to rescue each other and Sylvia and stop a mad genius’ nefarious plans.

Technology is important to debut author Klein’s novel, particularly the truth about how transportation really works, but character drives the story as much or more. Throughout, the narrator (whether Joel or Joel No. 2) has an appealing voice and presence. He’s funny, thoughtful, concerned about his marriage and, in the face of mortal danger, grimly determined to do anything to rescue his wife. The duplicate-Joel plot has an extra payoff in how Joel is forced to contemplate some of his less admirable qualities when he sees them in his double. Klein’s world building is superb, especially effective for how he blends nifty gee-whiz stuff with characterization. For example, in 2147, engineered mosquitoes eat pollution and piss water. They’re saving the planet … but Joel hates the thought of being rained on from mosquito bladders and can’t stop complaining about it. Seeing how well Klein has thought through his premise is a great pleasure of the book. He also offers philosophical food for thought regarding identity and originality that recalls Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But readers with less taste for technology and ideas can still be drawn into the book’s twisty plot, unexpected turns, cunning plans, action and struggle, plus entertaining matches of wit between Joel/Joel2 and various artificial intelligences. The ’80s pop music that threads through the book is another enjoyable feature.

It’s hard to say enough good things about this hard-science future thriller with humor and heart — it’s an excellent debut.

(Klein will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 2 p.m. Aug. 19 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

The power of the podcast

A young woman makes a great deal of effort to distance herself from her past only to have it reawakened by a podcast in Kathleen Barber’s “Are You Sleeping.”

After her father was murdered 13 years ago, her mother ran off to join a cult and her twin sister betrayed her, Josie wandered aimlessly around the world, working odd jobs and avoiding serious entanglements. Then she met Caleb, and they began to build a real life, settling into jobs and friends and an apartment in New York — but she didn’t tell him about her past or even her real name. Her sense of peace is shattered when she learns that Poppy Parnell, formerly the force behind a true-crime blog, has released a podcast in which she questions the guilt of the boy convicted of killing Josie’s father. As more episodes of the podcast drop, Josie’s mother commits suicide; when she’s summoned home to Chicago by her aunt and cousin for the funeral, she learns that her twin sister, Lanie, is now married to her own former boyfriend and lives a comfortable, Stepford-like existence. Forced to confront the past for the first time in more than a decade, Josie also must face the fact that she may not know the truth about what happened to her father. The most relevant and interesting aspect of this novel is its exploration of the power of the podcast. Debut novelist Barber acknowledges that she was inspired by “Serial,” and her novel asks the reader to reflect on his or her own complicity when the people involved in a real-life crime story are dragged back into the limelight years later by that kind of journalism, and the impact it can have on their lives. Beyond this, however, Barber’s mystery is somewhat lackluster, and the characters lack true depth.

“Are You Sleeping” is an interesting effort to critique society in this age of unfettered access to other people’s stories.

The Austin American-Statesman has teamed with Kirkus Reviews to bring you select reviews from one of the most trusted and authoritative voices in book discovery. For more reviews from Kirkus, visit kirkusreviews.com.

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