The Punch Escrow

I picked up this book after attending Map Camp at the start of the month. The author, Tal M. Klein, was the final speaker at the conference and gave the day a lovely lighthearted ending with his application of Wardley Mapping to the technology in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. From what I can gather, the author had used Wardley Mapping in his day job as VP of Strategy at Lakeside Software and then applied the same thinking to writing his novel. He used the technique to reason about technology advances that could be achieved in the not-too-distant future — by the year 2147, to be precise — and built a science-fiction adventure novel around them. Simon was handing out copies of the book to the speakers at Map Camp and after enjoying the author’s talk I was very intrigued.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. At the start I was worried about the amount of footnotes which seemed to come thick and fast, explaining technologies and concepts. I don’t find these distracting in a non-fiction work, nor in a good translation of a foreign-language novel where there is an explanation of a nuance to the text that has been lost when turned into English, but they did grate here. Thankfully they are less frequent as the novel progresses and the key concepts are established. They feel too awkward, being in the first person of the main character/narrator sometime in the mid-22nd century, addressed to a future reader, but actually (and somewhat self-consciously) to a real reader in our time. For example:

In case you’ve devolved back to barter or evolved to something else, chits were the elastic global block-chain cryptocurrencies that underpinned our global economy. They were secure and unforgeable by design and made most financial crime obsolete…

Some of this is also in the main text:

I jumped up from the couch, sweeping aside several gaming windows on my comms with a wave of my hand. In case you guys in the future all speak telepathically or something, comms were neural stem implants that pretty much everyone got on their second birthday.

I didn’t feel any empathy with the characters. In the best novels I have read I find myself gripped by their plight; I am literally willing them to either step forward into or back from the course of action they are taking. This didn’t happen for me here. Partially I think this was because of the main character’s flippant style and tone:

As I tucked and buttoned, I silently cursed myself for not setting an alarm. True, my marriage had been trending downward for the past year, but the last thing I wanted was to initiate the Big Talk. And to be fair, we were both to blame for our relationship bottoming out.

…and partially from the way in which his relationship with his wife doesn’t seem believable. They don’t seem to have a strong enough bond, at least not one that is built up in the book. Without spoiling the story, I didn’t feel anything for them when their relationship — and their lives — are in peril. Not enough time is given to their backstory.

The technology side of the book is really thoughtful and interesting and there are some fascinating ideas here. I particularly liked how the author seemed to join self-driving cars, Google AdSense-type auctions and Uber surge pricing together into a simple believable concept:

Hurry meant that the cart would actively pay the occupants of other vehicles on the road to prioritize [his] route above theirs. It worked like an auction system, in which everyone could bid on getting to their destination as soon as they wanted. It could become incredibly expensive…

Despite everything I’ve said here, reviews for this book are not bad so you may well enjoy it. It is even being made into a film (warning: don’t click that link unless you want to read a one-line spoiler). For me, it was a worthwhile read, but isn’t life-changing and won’t be a book that I come back to.

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