The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein

Rating: 2.5 (out of 10)

Fiction can do quite a lot of things, but most often it aims to entertain or to express ambitious ideas. Great authors do both of those things brilliantly and produce great works, but great authors are few and far between. Good authors tend to excel at one of those aims to the detriment of the other, or excel adequately enough at both to find artistic and/or commercial success. I can forgive an entertaining novel for lacking ambition. I can forgive an ambitious novel for falling a little short of its goals. But I have no patience for a novel that fails spectacularly and aggressively at both. Those are just bad books.
Wherever you see a “high average” book on Amazon or Goodreads (such as this one – a 4.13/5 on GR at the time of my writing this) and you scroll through the reviews, there is always a least one prick among the 4 and 5 star gushers who has to poop in the punch bowl. Truly I tell you, I am almost never that guy. I can count the number of 1 star reviews I’ve written on one hand, with room to spare. 2 stars are a little more common, but not by much. More often than not, if I’m not as high on a book that everyone else loves, there are at least enough redeeming qualities to warrant a third star. So I promise you, if you see a lone star at the top of one of my reviews, there is some really intense dissatisfaction in play. In fact, my dislike for this novel is so intense that I am actually considering adding a second star to at least one of my other 1 star reviews out of fairness. I’m probably not going to do it, but I am thinking about it.
Teleportation – a longtime staple of the science fiction genre that is nonetheless ripe for further exploration – is the subject of The Punch Escrow. Set in the year 2147, Joel Byram is the husband of one of the leading scientists in teleportation technology. While teleporting to Costa Rica to meet his wife for a second honeymoon, a terrorist attack on the facility leaves him in limbo, causing his wife to panic and create a duplicate of him, not knowing that the “original” Joel rematerialized at the embarkation point. It’s not a bad setup for the story, but what follows doesn’t do it any justice. The plot is so thin that if you removed all the asides and digressions and info dumping and pointlessly elongated dialogue exchanges you would barely be left with a short story.
But plot development is the least of this novel’s problems. Fiction lives and dies by its characters, and The Punch Escrow has none to speak of. Don’t get me wrong, there are human-like entities present, all of whom have jobs and backstories and use language to communicate with each other, but the novel mistakes these basic descriptive requirements and behavioral traits for actual character development. Their sole reason for existing seems to be to dispense either snark or plot information. Joel is the protagonist, I guess, because he does both. Character choices and responses are obvious and predictable. I find it unfortunate that a novel positing that technology can reduce human beings to nothing more than exchangeable bits of information fails to depict a single recognizably human character as a counterpoint.
The setting feels just as inorganic and contrived as the characters, as if the author plugged some data into a random science fiction future generator and this was the result. In terms of theme, the novel seems to mistake presenting the implications of its premise for actually exploring those implications. I can’t fault the novel for failing to live up to its ambitions when it clearly doesn’t even know what it means to try. Mr. Klein’s prose has that really distracting, hyperactive attention deficit style that is becoming more and more popular among new writers (and readers) of genre fiction, a trend that portends no less than the death of the art form.
In short, beyond a handful of clever quips and an interesting scientific nugget here and there, I can’t find much of anything to redeem this novel.

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