Interview: Tal M. Klein, Author of 'The Punch Escrow'
The Punch Escrow has been a huge critical and commercial success; author Tal M. Klein's debut novel has garnered praise from everyone from NPR to Felicia Day, and with good reason. Set in the year 2147, Escrow combines a compelling narrative and cast of characters with masterful world-building - transporting the reader to an all-too believable future, constructed from a mix of speculative fiction, and imaginative, logical, extensions of real-world science and sociological trends.
It has garnered many favorable comparisons to Ready Player One, which does it a bit of a disservice, since it's a work of breathtaking originality. The only similarities I note are that it successfully integrates, and updates, some beloved science fiction ideas, and that it has been fast tracked to the big screen; a film adaptation is already in development at Lionsgate.
I had the opportunity to interview Klein about the book's origins and influences, what to expect from him in the future, and how he masterfully constructed the world of 2147 - from science, to music and much more.
Matt Sager: Like a lot of great science fiction, The Punch Escrow has several themes, and is clearly about a lot more than a future of human replication and teleportation. How would you describe the book's plot and overall themes - or more bluntly, "what is your book about?"
Tal M. Klein: I like to say it’s a hard sci-fi technothriller with a love story at its core. Joel Byram, an everyday guy in 2147 New York is duplicated en route to Costa Rica as a result of a teleportation mishap, the company that runs teleportation wants to “fix the bug” by killing one of the duplicates, religious zealots want to use his circumstance as propaganda, and his wife is kidnapped by a rogue scientist. Now Joel is fighting to save his life and in his wife in a world that has two of him. The core elements of the story are rooted in identity: Are we who society says we are? Or who we think we are? Or who those who we love believe us to be?
MS: You’ve attained huge success with The Punch Escrow - you’ve attained massive critical and commercial success, the book has been optioned by Lions Gate, and as of this writing it’s number 1 on Amazon’s Hard Science Fiction charts. Did you envision this level of attention and success for your debut novel?
TMK: I set out to tell the best version of my story. That was my criteria for a “job well done.” I’m thrilled people are digging it. The credit for its success is equally shared by my wife, my editorial team of Robert Kroese, Matt Harry, and Adam Gomolin, and Howie Sanders at United Talent Agency.
MS: I’ve been told that the concept for the book came about over an argument over the plausibility of Star Trek transporters - can you elaborate on how that led to a book about teleportation and cloning?
TMK: What you’ve been told is true! 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 suddenly, our CEO interrupted our conversation by shouting “It’s bullshit!” It turned out 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 smartass named 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.
MS: I’m very aware that you're not a fan of J.J. Abrams' lens flare. Cinematography aside, are you a fan of the new Star Trek franchise? Other than the transporter argument, has it had any influence on your writing?
TMK: Hah, well, discounting for his penchant for lens flare, I’m a huge J.J. Abrams fan, the first movie of the Trek reboot was great. I didn’t really care for the second or third.
MS: J.J. Abrams aside, I know that you’re a huge fan of Star Trek - which is your favorite franchise, and how has it influenced you as a writer?
TMK: I’d qualify that by saying I love Star Trek, but I’m not a Trekkie. I say that because I learned my lesson at San Diego Comic Con. If you tell a Trekkie that you’re a Trekkie, they expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Trek cannon, which I do not possess. So, yes, I am a Star Trek fan. My favorite franchise was DS9, but my favorite season of all time was TNG Season 6.
MS: Which other science fiction television shows, films, books and writers would you cite as your biggest influences?
TMK: Larry Niven, Scott Meyer, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and, because The Martian undeniably catalyzed me to write my book, Andy Weir. As for television shows, I think it’s fair to credit modern detective shows like 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. Influential movies run the gamut from The Princess Bride to Donnie Darko and everything in between, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention District 9, Looper, and Gattaca.
MS: The Punch Escrow strikes me as a book that's in equal parts hopeful and fearful for the future. There are themes of utopian technology corrupted by corporate interference. How much of that - the good and the ill - do you see unfolding in the present? Is your fictional vision of 2147 similar to your actual view of the future?
TMK: To borrow a phrase from The Jester, There's an unequal amount of good and bad in most things. The trick is to figure out the ratio and act accordingly. I don’t think future is dystopian or utopian, it’s just us progressing along our evolutionary path.
MS: Music plays a major role in the book. I understand that we have a music industry background in common. What was your career in music like, and how did it contribute to the Joel's soundtrack, and the new genre of redistro?
TMK: I never think of anything I do artistically as a “career” — music and writing are my hobbies. I’m very serious about my hobbies, but I pursue them for the sake of pure joy rather than income.
MS: One of the most original ideas in The Punch Escrow is the brilliant, if gross, race of genetically engineered mosquitoes. What was your inspiration for these bugs that eat lighting and crap thunder, so to speak?
TMK: Everyone loves the mosquitoes! The near-scandal is that I cut the mosquitoes in the third draft of the book because I learned about bacteria that eat methane and excreted oxygen, but my beta readers freaked out on me, so I put the skeeters back. The reason the mosquitoes are there is because I wanted to solve for air pollution but in a very messy, human way. Humans tend to to opt for quick fixes and shortcuts, I think it’s because we are a breed largely driven by the pursuit of instant gratification.
MS: Hard science fiction like The Punch Escrow seems to grow more relevant by the day as AI and robots are, to varying degrees, infiltrating the workforce and performing tasks that were once the sole domain of humans. Do you see this as a growing issue, and if so, need it be a threat? Is AI really capable of supplanting people, and is that really what corporations as a whole want?
TMK: Will apps and robots take the place of people? Absolutely. But if we look at what happened in the Industrial Age, people were prophesizing similar doom and gloom scenarios, and that’s not how the future turned out. There will be plenty of human jobs after AI, it’s just that those jobs will be different than many of the jobs we have today.
MS: How did you come up with the idea of a machine language - that is, a language by machines, for machines, cars talking to one another, etc? How surprised were you when Facebook had to shut down it’s AI because it had created a secret language for itself?
TMK: If you’ve ever played with AI, it makes sense that two pieces of semi-intelligent code might form a more optimal method of communicating than our cumbersome language. I was a bit taken aback by what happened at Facebook, yes. But it wasn’t shocking. I also understand why they pulled the chord, but I kind of wish they hadn’t.
MS: What do you think machines are saying about us, and if AI continues to advance, do you think that they are going to develop an opinion of us? Do you think it will be favorable, and/or within our ability to influence?
TMK: Code will likely always be subservient to its programmer. As such, I think we need to add ethics to the list of engineering core competencies. If engineers exclusively focus on successful code execution without regard for anthropological outcomes in the age of AI, we may very well end up with evil robots.
MS: Are there sequels in the works? What’s next for the Punch Escrow universe, and for you as a writer?
TMK: I’m contractually obligated to deliver two more books that take place in the world of The Punch Escrow. One of them will likely be a sequel of sorts in that we’ll get into matters unresolved in The Punch Escrow, but the other is shaping up to be a standalone novel with a narrative that is ancillary to that of The Punch Escrow. But who knows, both are at the very early formative stages.