The Punch Escrow
by Tal M. Klein
“Imagine looking in the mirror and not knowing who you are. An empty face staring back. No one. We rarely think about how much air is around us until we can’t breathe. We always imagine what it would be like to be someone else, but when we do so, it’s with the guise that beneath it all, we know who we really are. Take that away, and who are we?” ― Tal M. Klein, The Punch Escrow
Would you trust a machine to teleport you from New York to Costa Rica? Set in the not too distant future, The Punch Escrow is a novel that depends on you and a lot of other people saying yes to that question. It is the story of Joel Byram, a self-described smart-ass who works as a man-made intelligence "salter" who helps practice AIs to grasp the artwork of human interplay by way of using jokes and language puzzles. He is a super AI interface hacker; consequently, he has the talents required to linguistically trick AIs into elevating his privileges and performing duties they would be unlikely to do otherwise. Along with his winning personality this is one of the best aspects of the novel.
The actual bread-winner within the Byram family is his spouse, Sylvia. She's a workaholic senior analyst at IT: Worldwide Transport, the corporation that controls the worldwide teleportation market. In order to reboot their shaky marriage they book a second honeymoon in Costa Rica. Joel is about to teleport to satisfy his spouse, ready for the flash that often accompanies the journey, when a suicide bomber makes the leap ahead of him and blows up the Costa Rica teleportation level. The explosion interrupts the community and his transport, and, because of the security system utilized by IT, Joel is left standing confused in Greenwich Village. However the error reports him having transported. Believing him lifeless, his spouse restores Joel from an experimental backup system. Now there are two Joels—and the original Joel loses his digital id when the second is created (in this future world losing your digital id is a personal disaster).
This precipitates a massive company problem for IT, one of the most powerful corporations in a future where the management of the world has been given over to corporations after the demise of nation-states. Joel's twin existence is proof of the elemental lie behind their patented "Punch Escrow," the key ingredient of the security system constructed to make certain protection for human transport.
Named for the 17th century Irish thinker and theologian John Punch (the person credited with formulating the classical definition of Occam's Razor), the "escrow" is not actually a know-how, but rather a sort of algorithm used to make sure there is a protected supply of individuals. The system "prints" copies of them on the vacation spot, then murders the unique with nanobots. From there on out, Joel is on the run for his life—or lives, as each of him and his spouse are awfully inconvenient to some and a possible prize to others.
Klein applies serious science to his future-world hypothesis (he consulted a medical physicist and other sources). And he provides footnotes—asides from Joel explaining the science and historical past of his future world, in his personal smart-ass method—to keep away from overburdening the core narrative with exposition, in a method that comes off as an irreverent model of the gadget utilized by Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
This reader took pleasure in the novel based on the original Joel as the narrator. The story is informed solely from Joel's (and his copy's) perspective, there is not an entire lot of character improvement past the confines of his wisecracking thoughts. It also helps to avoid trying to analyze the plot too closely for there are a few too many fortuitous moments for Joel. The saving grace is that the author is able to create situations that can sometimes be very humorous from Joel's engagement with the ubiquitous computerization of everyday objects. This was an enjoyable read and should become an entertaining movie (the film version is already in production).