A few years ago, in the science section of The New York Times, a physicist explained that the transporters from Star Trek were technically impossible. But while this is an assertion that writer Tal M Klein agrees with, that didn’t stop him from putting a teleportation devices in the center of his new sci-fi novel, The Punch Escrow (paperback, digital). Though as he admitted during the following interview, it was actually someone else’s negative feelings about transporters that led him to write this novel.
Photo Credit: Lai Long
Let’s start at the beginning: What is The Punch Escrow about?
It’s “about” a lot of things. Think of it as a combination of a hard sci-fi teleportation-as-a-medium-of-transportation origin story, a technothriller set in 2147 about a man who’s haphazardly been duplicated and is now on the run from the corporation behind teleportation and the zealots of who seek to destroy it, and a love story about two versions of the same man in the midst of a very bizarre love triangle with their wife.
Where did you get the original idea for it, and how different is the finished version from that initial concept?
Back in 2012, I was complaining to a co-worker about J.J. Abrams’ over the top use of lens flare in the Star Trek reboot, when all of a sudden our CEO interrupted the conversation by shouting “It’s bullshit!” It would turn out that he wasn’t talking about the lens flare, but Star Trek‘s transporters. He was an expert in quantum physics, and went on to explain that nobody in the right mind would ever step into a transporter if they knew how it worked. It was then that I realized that there wasn’t a good origin story for the commercialization of teleportation.
The fact is, I initially set out the write The Punch Escrow as a textbook from the future, with scribbles in the margins by a plucky Joel Byram. That was the first draft. By the time the final draft was done, Joel’s story became the focus on the book, and the “textbook” was relegated to liner notes, explaining the world Joel lived in.
The Punch Escrow has been compared to Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Which I assume you don’t have a problem with, since it’s part of the promotional materials for your book. But how do you think The Punch Escrow is similar to Dark Matter, and what makes it different?
The main reason the two books get compared is because their plots revolve around the “alternate self” trope: two versions of the same protagonist. Both also use hard science to explain the circumstances leading to the creation of said alternate self.
But without getting into spoilers for either book, I think that beyond these similarities, the stories are delightfully different. I don’t mind The Punch Escrow being compared to any book I’ve enjoyed. I’ve also seen it compared to [Andy Weir’s] The Martian, and [Ernest Cline] Ready Player One. You won’t find me complaining about being among such great company.
The part about how Joel is accidentally duplicated in a transporter accident also reminds me of Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays. Have you read it?
Another great book. Look, there’s a reason “alternate self” is such a popular trope. Still, I believe what makes The Punch Escrow unique isn’t that there are two versions of the protagonist, but rather that the world they occupy isn’t a dystopia. It’s a plausible vision of our world a bit over a hundred years from now in which both good and bad things happen. And, most important, I think the love story is very palpable and relatable. It feels real to me.
So are there any writers, or books, that you think had a big influence on The Punch Escrow? And I mean on just this book, not your writing style as a whole.
Yes. One in particular: Scott Meyer, author of the Magic 2.0 series. The voice of Martin Banks, that series’ protagonist, was indelibly formative to the construction of The Punch Escrow‘s Joel Byram. Scott is an amazing author. I love every single one of his books. When I finished writing my novel, I sent him a gushing fan letter and attached a draft of my manuscript. A few days later he kindly wrote back, and provided this hilarious blurb: “This book angered me to my core because it’s based on an idea that should have occurred to me. The fact that Tal executed it so well, and made such a page-turner out of it, just adds insult to injury.”
Nice. What about movies, TV shows, or books? Did any of them have an impact on The Punch Escrow? Besides Star Trek, of course.
I think it’s fair to credit such modern detective shows as Psych and Monk for helping me wrap my mind around Rube Goldberg plot devices. Most influential was my favorite show of all time, The X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen. I think they really nailed the technogeek persona.
And this is my last “influence” question, I swear. You’ve said that The Punch Escrow is a mix of “hard science fiction and dark comedy.” Who do you see as being the big influences on the humor in The Punch Escrow?
Joel’s personality is constructed around a combination of me and my friend John Hannon. We’re basically these jerks that people hang around with because we can, on occasion, be hilarious.
That said, I’ve read everything Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have written, so there’s a strong likelihood I “borrowed” from them.
Now, as I understand it, The Punch Escrow is the first book of a trilogy. How much of the series do you have figured out?
A trilogy, eh? Well, the good news is that The Punch Escrow‘s world has room enough for much more than a mere three books’ worth of stories. I have loose outlines of “other stuff that happens,” some of it has to do with what happens in The Punch Escrow, some doesn’t.
This series has already been optioned by Lionsgate. I’m guessing you can’t say much, but what can you tell us about the movies so far?
All I can tell you is what’s already been announced: The book was optioned by Lionsgate, and James Bobin [The Muppets] has been hired to adapt and direct. He’s a genius, and Lionsgate is awesome. The story is in good hands.
This probably won’t happen, but if Bobin asked you who to cast as Joel and the other major characters in The Punch Escrow movie, who would you suggest and why?
People have been asking me this question a lot lately, my answer is always the same: I have no idea. I trust James and the creative team at Lionsgate to figure it out.
Finally, if someone really enjoys The Punch Escrow, what should they read while waiting for the next book in this series come out?
Within the realm of sci-fi, though, I very much look forward to checking out Andy Weir’s Artemis. And if you’re looking for quirky cool sci-fi, definitely check out Scott Meyer’s Run Program and Robert Kroese’s The Big Sheep, as well as its sequel The Last Iota.