Tal M. Klein’s debut novel, The Punch Escrow, kicks off by describing how “teleportation killed the Mona Lisa.” And it only gets crazier from there.
Set in 2147, the “techno-thriller with a love story at its core” (as Klein labels it) is set in a future in which genetically engineered mosquitoes have curbed global warming and AI engines pay people who help them act more human. Freight teleportation has existed for decades, and—thanks to tech advances made after the Mona Lisa accident—human teleportation is now possible. In fact, it’s the “safest form of transportation.” In the 21 years since its commercialization, no human has ever been “maimed, altered, vanished or otherwise mistreated” by teleportation.
Until Klein’s protagonist, Joel Byram, gets duplicated.
Teleportation may be cliché trope in science fiction, but the tech’s ramifications are terrifying. A conversation about its dangers catalyzed Klein’s idea for the novel.
“I was having a discussion by the water cooler where I was working several years ago, and we were talking about an arbitrary topic to me: the Star Trek reboot,” Klein says in a phone interview with Paste. “I was complaining about J.J. Abrams using too much lens flare, and then our CEO—he has a Ph.D. in physics from MIT—says, ‘It’s bullshit!’ I said, ‘The lens flare?’ And he said, ‘No, the whole premise of Star Trek is bullshit, because it presupposes that any human would ever set foot in a transporter.’”
Since teleportation involves getting vaporized and printed out in another location, Klein’s boss argued that no sane person would risk it. Which made Klein wonder how teleportation became so readily accepted in sci-fi.
“I couldn’t find any origin stories,” he says. “I found lots of literary examples of people who explored the existential notion of teleportation and duplication…but nobody really talks about where it started.”
The Punch Escrow was born out of Klein’s desire to imagine teleportation’s commercialization. His first manuscript read like a textbook about the emergence of transportation technology, with Joel’s story told in the liner notes. It garnered a publishing offer, but Klein chose to turn it down.
“I was excited about the publishing offer, but one of the things I really didn’t like was their antiquated marketing plan,” Klein says. “They were going to buy endcaps in bookstores and advertising in magazines. And I was like, ‘I don’t know how often [the book’s audience] sets foot in a bookstore. They consume stuff on Reddit and go to websites like Nerdist and Geek & Sundry. They live on the Internet. This book needs to be published in their universe.’”
The same weekend that he passed on the publishing deal, Klein discovered and entered Geek & Sundry’s 2016 Hard Science Contest in partnership with Inkshares.
“I had previously supported one of my friend’s projects on Inkshares, so I knew the site,” Klein says. “And I knew they were a reader driven publishing platform, meaning you’re not just trying to crowdfund the book. There’s a lot more that goes into it with editorial components. They act as your manager in the Hollywood system. So not only do you get to publish a book through them, you automatically get repped through United Talent Agency. It would open up a lot more doors for me.”
The Punch Escrow won the contest, making it the inaugural title in Geek & Sundry’s new publishing imprint. But Klein realized his manuscript’s real story was in Joel’s liner notes, leading him to rewrite the entire book from scratch after his win. The result is a novel about Joel’s fight for survival after he’s duplicated while teleporting, with the scientific text relegated to footnotes scattered throughout the book.
“[Inkshares] ran a plagiarism checker on the final draft,” Klein says. “So I asked if they could feed the first draft into the checker, and then check it against the final draft. It came up as 93% different.”
The rewrite proved to be a bold move that worked in Klein’s favor. Lionsgate acquired the rights to The Punch Escrow in April, months ahead of the book’s release date this week. And while it’s too early to know when (or if) fans can expect a movie, it sounds like Lionsgate is interested in Klein’s work beyond the first novel.
“One of the cool things about Lionsgate is that they refer to the project as ‘The Future,’ not as The Punch Escrow,” Klein says. “They liked the idea that it’s a world, and it’s got a whole bunch of stuff that happens.”
Klein’s already at work on his next project, but he won’t divulge anything concrete about it. And even though The Punch Escrow ends with a cliffhanger, it’s unclear if his next book will be the sequel.
“I’ve been writing a bunch of content that exists in the world of The Punch Escrow,” Klein says. “Some of it is events before the events of The Punch Escrow, and some of it is after. Some of it happened during The Punch Escrow, but tangentially. There’s definitely a sequel that’s being written, but there’s also other content that is going to manifest itself in other ways.”
Regardless of what Klein releases next, his future is one worth exploring. While Joel witnesses the ugly side of that world (being hunted by both the organization that controls teleportation and a radical religious sect will do that to you), it’s also surprisingly idyllic. Dystopian lit may be trending, but The Punch Escrow’s shift away from that genre is refreshing.
“So many people are so defeatist when it comes to the future, and that was another big sci-fi trope that I wanted to avoid,” Klein says. “The future of The Punch Escrow is a world in which I can imagine myself being happy…Bad things happen in it, but bad things happen now.”
Readers will gravitate to Klein’s novel for the action, but they’ll stay for the world building—and the twists. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, it’s impossible to describe what truly makes his book unique. This isn’t Star Trek “Second Chances” or a riff on Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, and Joel’s duplication isn’t the MacGuffin.
Klein simply says the world of The Punch Escrow—and its real MacGuffin—“accounts for us being human.”
“And part of what makes us human is being a little bit short-sighted.”
Frannie Jackson is Paste’s Books Editor. She reads a ridiculous amount of sci-fi and fantasy, and she occasionally posts on Twitter.