Tal M. Klein came up with the idea for his new book, The Punch Escrow, while having a conversation with his friend Gabe about the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies. Klein was complaining about lens flare, as you do, but his friend had bigger science fiction fish to fry.
“‘It’s bullshit,'” Klein told Den of Geek at San Diego Comic Con, recounting what Gabe said to him during that fateful conversation. “‘What, the lens flare?'” Klein asked back. “‘No, nobody would ever step foot inside a transporter … It’s all bullshit science because they turn into kids, sometimes they go back in the past, how does it even work?'”
Gabe has a point. But rather than just move onto the next item of contention on the nerd night-out agenda, as most people would do, Klein decided to write a book about the origin story of teleportation: how the technology could feasibly develop and, perhaps more interesting, how people could be convinced to put their faith in it.
“Teleportation is such a popular trope in scifi,” said Klein, “but we don’t have a story about how it become commercialized. What was it that made people comfortable stepping into a teleport for the first time?”
Teleportation: an origin story.
The Punch Escrow tells the story of Joel, a regular dude living in the year 2147. Joel spends his days training computer programs to be more human and half-heartedly trying to fix things with his workholic wife Sylvia, who has a mysterious, time-consuming job at International Transport, the corportation responsible for operating teleportation hubs around the world.
Joel’s life is thrown into peril when, during a run-of-the-mill teleportation to Costa Rica to meet Sylvia for their second honeymoon, he is accidentally replicated. The Punch Escrow follows both Joels as they struggle to come to terms with what has happened to them, and try to outrun International Transport, the corporation desperate to keep the true secret of teleportation technology away from the public.
While the near-future Klein has imagined has its perils, especially for the Joels, Klein aims to provide a counter for the dystopian trend ubiquitous in pop culture right now. “[The inception of The Punch Escrow] starts with me hating dystopian scifi,” said Klein, “especially these days when we need something positive to look forward to.”
I wanted to write a story that showed … that life as we know it continues to exist on its current trajectory, even in an age that’s automated and artificially-intelligent and where all the jobs as we know them go away. But people still find work and they’re still gainfully employed and they’re still able to play games and have fun and have relationships and have love.
Relationships and love play an unexpectedly vital role in The Punch Escrow. Ultimately, the events that lead to Joel’s replication are not a technological error; they are a human one.
“Love is this glitchy thing that makes us unique, that perseveres throughout time,” said Klein of the very human story that accompanies the hard science fiction narrative in The Punch Escrow. For an author who did extensive research into the technological aspects of his world-building, Klein waxes as poetically about the future of love as he does about the future of laser weapons and interstellar technology.
One of these things that’s been a constant is this notion of love. Throughout humanity, that’s the one thing that really hasn’t changed: what it means to love someone. We’ve changed what it means to date, to be married, all of these things, but love transcends all of those, and I wanted to still show that in the future.
The Inkshares model.
Now, Klein may have a finished, published novel and a feature film adaptation in development with James Bobin attached as director, but writing a book doesn’t just happen. And, in order to talk about the development of The Punch Escrowas a story, we need to talk about Inkshares, the reader-driven publisher that published the novel.
In the Inkshares model, authors post samples and/or pitches of their books on the Inkshares website. If the work gets 250 pre-orders, it gets a “light” publishing. If it gets 750 pre-orders, it gets a “fully-funded” publishing, which includes editing, design, printing, distribution, and marketing.
The Punch Escrow won Inkshares’ Geek & Sundry Hard Science Contest, granting it a place in Geek & Sundry’s Collection, as well as the editorial, production, distribution, and marketing support all Inkshares projects get.
“There’s more data sources,” said Klein of the Inkshares model. “Even after you win, you submit a pitch and you get assigned a developmental editor and assigned creative directors.
On the science side, Klein had a panel of five scientists who helped him develop the worldbuilding for The Punch Escrow. On the creative marketing side, Klein had several of Hollywood’s top creative executives, like Legendary’s Alex Hedlund and former Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, giving him development notes about the expectations of the target audience of the book.
The various support systems didn’t always see eye to eye.
“When we did all the math of what it would take to actually make teleportation feasible, using technologies we have today, [the panel of scientists said] it’s gonna take 500 years’ time because this would need to happen and this would need to happen,” said Klein, explaining that the book was originally set in the 25th century.
“Then, my developmental editor came and said, ‘Look, you’re going to run into a huge suspension of disbelief because this book reads like a near future book and, if you’re telling people it’s that far in the future, they’re gonna miss the things that they’re used to in far out future things, so you need to bring it a lot closer, like 100 years.'”
On the film tone scale, Klein’s developmental editors put it this way: It’s the difference between Arrivaland The Fifth Element.
They were like, ‘They’re both really interesting… but one feels tangible, and the other is fantastic … You need to decide, are you going to go fantastic or tangible? You can’t get away with both.’
Klein chose the tangible, so he went back to his panel of scientists and said, “Guys, I need this to remain a hard science fiction book, but we need to move it up 300 years.” Their answer? Do a war. “War is the greatest accelerant of technology because there’s a tangible benefit,” said Klein. “We’re a very short-minded species.”
In The Punch Escrow, this became The Last War, a global conflict that led to the disolution of the publicly-governed nation-state model and the formation of a new geopolitical reality: a world run by corporate nation-states. This history informs one of The Punch Escrow‘s most topical and, at least for this reader, interesting themes: corporate culpability.
“People will get disenfranchised with government and want to trust their fellow man and corporations will seem very easy to audit. More so than the religion,” said Klein of his corporate worldbuilding. “Corporations provide us with a very tangible metric for measuring whether they’re doing a good job or not. So that’s how we can make people believe in corporations because they’re people and not deities.”
This distinction between religions and corporations becomes much more muddled in The Punch Escrow when people, or at least the Joels, find out that corporations have been playing God.
Researching the future.
Much (though definitely not all) of The Punch Escrow‘s hardest science comes not in its main story, but in the footnotes that pepper its pages, proof of just how much research went into building the world for this book.
“[In its first draft], it was super, super hard scifi,” said Klein. “In fact, it was the reverse of the book because it was a textbook from the future that explained about the inception of teleportation as a thing, and then this Joel Byram guy in the footnotes was being an asshole, like, ‘That’s not really what happened.’ But, then, my developmental editor was like, ‘The interesting part is the footnotes.'”
Now, the bulk of the book is Joel’s snarky, yet serious post-replication journey, with the footnotes explaining in greater detail the science that informs the world, giving mini-lessons on everything from quantum entanglement to genetic engineering.
Klein suggests treating the footnotes like a “choose your own adventure.” If you want to learn more about the science, read the footnotes. If you’re too caught up in the plot and characters of the book to divert your attention, you can always check them out later. Or, if you’re like me, you can do a little bit of both.
“There’s nothing in the footnotes that’s essential to the plot,” said Klein. “You can read the book without the footnotes. In fact, the Kindle version, the footnotes are actually like pop-ups.”
Does Klein suggest reading the footnotes?
The selfish answer is: I’ve done three years of research into the science and just to throw it out is not something I was willing to do, so it’s a selfish response.
The marketing answer is: at the end of the day, I insert a lot of Joel’s voice into the footnotes, so even though they’re super heavy, there’s still Joel built into them because it’s Joel telling me things.
Ultimately, Klein is excited about the depth of knowledge the footnotes represent. “I’m cognizant that there’s a good chance this book will live or die based on the footnotes,” said Klein, “and I’m comfortable with that.”
Footnotes or not, The Punch Escrow is worth your time — perhaps especially if you’ve ever fondly rolled your eyes at one of Star Trek‘s transporter-themed episodes.
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