Tal M. Klein Throws The Punch Escrow: Which Me Am I?

The very idea of teleportation is, in Tal M. Klein’s The Punch Escrow, a clever bit of misdirection. We’ve seen it in fiction so many times, so many places. We’ve seen it go wrong almost as often as it’s gone right, yet we’re quite comfortable in a future where it’s commonplace. Our narrator, Joel Byram, has a sweet, smart, snarky voice that’s fun to read. In 2147, the world looks pretty good, even without the Mona Lisa, lost in an excitingly-described teleportation accident.

klein-the_punch_escrowUh oh. Between the dark shadings in Joel’s voice, it’s easy to guess something is going to go wrong. The clever bit is that the first things to be proved wrong are our assumptions about teleportation. As Joel points out, it’s an incredibly violent proposition. To be sure, it seems to be almost pristine. But, down and dirty, it involves annihilating your body as it is converted into data that is transmitted to another point where a new copy of your body is (hopefully) rebuilt. Viewed this way, what we take in the SF genre to be a straightforward process is really quite fraught with the potential for errors.

It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong, in spite of the titular protocol that essentially performs a checksum to verify a good copy. Fortunately for Joel, his fiancé is a maths genius who works for International Transport. Alas, that may prove to be problematic as well. Joel is no genius himself. He’s a “salter,” who earns his living by using his wits to come up with arbitrary arguments he aims at any available AI, with the intent of improving its wits. For a certain personality type, it’s the ultimate job: he’s a professional smart-ass, paid by the snark. Where snark meets Big Teleportation, danger and thus entertainment, follows.

The Punch Escrow is punctuated by engaging footnotes that offer selected and well-written dollops of the hard science behind Klein’s solid world-building. It’s refreshing to find science fiction with actual science in it, made more so by Klein’s super-fun prose voice. The pulse-pounding plot elements lock into place nicely, and readers are in for a wildly cinematic ride even as they are enjoying the world-reveal. Klein offers some amazingly resonant emotional notes for his well-crafted characters, more often than not keyed into the science of the story itself. It’s not surprising that the book is already in production. For readers, the best news is that it hardly matters whether or not it ever makes it to the actual big screen. It plays like one as you read it, but offers enough details that it begs to be re-read upon completion.

tal_m_klein-2017-editFor all the newfangled aspects of The Punch Escrow, perhaps the most pleasing aspect is very old-fangled, which is to say that this feels like a classic science fiction novel. It has the science, the thrills and the satiric humor that mark some of the best work of the previous century, without any sense of being deliberately “retro.” The Punch Escrow does what the best SF is supposed to do; it transports you to a future that feels real, with smart science and an equally smart sense of story. Your encounter with teleportation manages to teleport you with no technology involved.

Tal. M. Klein told me a great story about how his book came to be. It is absolutely not what you think it might be, and it was just the beginning of a conversation that was as engaging and surprising as the book behind it. As you might expect, he’s pretty stoked about the whole movie aspect, and as you might also expect, he’s got more than a grain of salt ready for the actual completion. You can hear our lightning round interview by following this link to get the flyover view, or listen below.

When you’re ready for the high-science version with grace notes about footnotes, follow this link to download the file, or listen below!


Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas: Topian Fiction

Well into Christopher Brown’s exciting new novel Tropic of Kansas, the title itself is described as, “…the line in our heads where ingenuity runs into loco.” Well, yes, we crossed that line and not recently. As a nation of boiled frogs, we are finding it harder and harder to understand not only how we got here, but as well, where exactly we are in the first place. As the present becomes more incomprehensible, the necessity for re-inventing it becomes increasingly urgent.

brown-tropic_of_kansasWe first meet Sig, a kid in an America that is somewhere in the gray zone between discombobulated and dystopian. Sig is fierce to the edge of feral, and he’s being rounded up as an illegal immigrant and sent back home – to America. As we meet Tania, a (US) government employee with lots of questions about both sides of the matter, we begin to wonder, where in the hell is this taking place. Is this meant to be our future? It’s not exactly the future and that’s your first clue that Christopher Brown has something much more nuanced and interesting than “dystopian” prescience.

As hellish as things look; climate change, economic disaster, and Untied, not United States – Brown is happy to offer us some solace as well. Not everybody with a modicum of power buys into the madness. The possibility for real change is present, and low technology is there to help. The experience of reading Tropic of Kansas is thrilling not just because Brown is a masterful plotter with Sig (sort of) maturing into a genuine hero, the kind of character that makes readers want to cheer out loud. One of the major thrill here is realizing that this is not the future. It’s the present, lightly re-mixed, with a plot that reality sadly seems to lack.

It’s hard to turn the pages fast enough as you read Tropic of Kansas. Brown writes set-pieces with a powerfully cinematic eye, but remembers to invest them in character. And, as you are reading, Brown’s visionary writing and world will drop your jaws every time his perceptions laser their way into the heart of today. This happens early and often; importantly, the book was written well before today, so that Brown’s vision seems topical without resorting to “ripped from the headlines.”

christopher_brown-2017It’s also critical that this is not Another Book About the Dire, Awful World. Things are bad in Tropic of Kansas, but not entirely so. There’s a soupcon of “getting-better-ability” even in the most horrific situations. This isn’t dystopian or utopian fiction, but just, what you might call “Topian,” which is to say a system that has Humans in it and thus is incapable of reaching Heaven or Hell. We can imagine both, but we know in our hearts that it’s Purgatory for us.

I first encountered Christopher Brown as the editor of the excellent anthology Three Messages and a Warning, and so was queued up early for his novel. I just admit that the novel really knocked my socks off, and it’s the kind of work that offers lots to talk about. When we sat own at KQED, there was so much to talk bout that I barely got time to mention his anthology – but we did some quality time to discuss both his novel and the anthology. You can hear our lightning-round interview to cover the basics by following this link, or listen below.

For a deep dive into the nascent genre of Topian Fiction, follow this link, or immerse yourself in the antidote for Our Topian World by listening below.

Rob Goodman Jimmy Soni Examine A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Claude Shannon was a man of a different age from ours, and not simply because it was his mind that informed the creation of our world. Even for his time, the mid-20th century, he was the quintessential quiet man. An engineer, a mathematician, a tinkerer, Shannon’s story proves to be riveting and relevant here is the 21st century, where we now understand ourselves to be swimming in a sea of information. With their biography, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have crafted a gripping narrative that honors their subject even as it astonishes their readers. A Mind at Play is an engaging exploration of the silences and spaces from which Information Theory, and the Internet, eventually emerged.

soni_goodman-a_mind_at_play-300Shannon is not an easy man to write about, but the authors manage to create a seamless single voice with which to examine what proves to be a very American success story. To do so, they find the perfect scenes and prose to match, to wit, a story from Shannon’s youth about his use to electrified fences transmit coded messages on the wires. The authors are clear on the fact that this was not uncommon, but they write the prose and paint the picture so that readers cannot help but be thrilled in this intimation of what was to come. It is but one of many quiet moments that reverberate into the present.

Soni and Goodman bring in some heavy hitters and major players from this era; Vannevar Bush, whose genius was to find those like Shannon and others and bring them into the war effort; Alan Turing, who came to America to check up on our cryptography; John Von Neumann and Albert Einstein. They effortlessly weave these stories into Shannon’s story of creating the idea of the “bit.” He wanted to call it the “binary digit,” but was dissuaded from doing so. And so, Soni and Goodman offer us the wonder of seeing our world built one bit at a time.

One senses the authors’ respect for and understanding of Shannon with their occasional inclusion of the math and physics behind and of Shannon’s discoveries. It’s pretty damn easy and thrilling to read the core equation at the center of Shannon’s Information theory. Goodman and Soni pull off these scenes with ease. In honoring Shannon’s sense of quiet, they find their greatest strength as biographers. A Mind at Play is a playful and entertaining look at the man whose Information Theory underpins our reality.

Thrilling is an understatement with regards to my conversation about with Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. To be fair, we were all playing in the key of Claude Shannon, and these two experts earned their expertise in the creation of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. But I also think that what was informing all of us was the fact that we are all in a sense children of the Information Age. No matter how loud it has become, our world was born in quiet. Follow this link and listen to Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, or listen below to pure information. Beauty!