The Big Idea: Paul Melko

Paul Melko is another member of the Ohio SF/F Cabal (our motto: There’s More Of Us Than You Think™), and he’s just released his first novel, Singularity’s Ring, to a not inconsiderable amount of acclaim (“[A] superior debut… the ingenious character development and startling images and ideas are deeply satisfying” — Publishers Weekly). Some of this acclaim comes because he’s come up with a pretty nifty idea: His main character just happens to be spread over five people. Which, while making shopping for shoes something of a challenge, does open up other very interesting possibilities. How does Melko pull this off, and why did he think of it in the first place? Well, naturally, that’s the subject of his installment of The Big Idea.


I love big ideas in my science fiction. Big ideas are why, back in 1979, I started reading science fiction. (Those first two books were Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and The Rolling Stones. Talk about your big ideas.) It only makes sense that I like big ideas in my own fiction.

Singularity’s Ring started with the protagonist, Apollo, who stemmed from an idea an anthology editor suggested: give me a future in which computers and internets aren’t the focus of human technology. So I got the silicon out of my future; the computers in Apollo’s world are humans, or rather groups of humans. Apollo isn’t just one person; he’s five humans who act as one. He’s (they’ve?) been genetically altered to share thoughts, memories, and emotions via pheromones and chemical thoughts.

What titillated me about biological plurals – pods, multiples, group minds – was the idea of emergence in complex networks. The simplest pods in my future are duos. Two humans and one link: the simplest network. Add one more human and now you have three brains and three links. One more and you have four brains and six links. By the time you get to Apollo — five brains, ten links — the complexity has multiplied. As emergence suggests, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. We see phenomena that are not featured within the nodes, but are a result of the interaction between them. (Continue on this train of thought to Organizational Theory; the rest of us will get off at Implications.)

So, Apollo, my protagonist, is actually five people, acting as one, sharing thoughts. Implications? You bet. If science fiction is a double banana split, implications are the stomach ache at 2 AM.

1) Order matters. Suppose you could move your right brain to where your medulla oblongata is and put your hind brain next to your cerebellum. Your thoughts would be totally different. (And you’d be insane, but great fun at parties.) Apollo can do that; he can rearrange the path of thinking by moving component nodes from one place to another. If Apollo holds hands in a circle, he thinks different thoughts than if he stands in a line. If one of Apollo is missing or too far for high throughput, the thoughts are different. Apollo changes how he thinks by arranging himself spatially.

2) Who’s Got the Puck? I decided it was like a token ring system. I know! It’s old tech, but I needed a computer analog. Consider this: some node in Apollo thinks a thought and passes it on. The next node accepts it, thinks about it internally, modifies it, and passes it on. A five node system could be thinking about five things at a time, passing the thoughts — tokens — down the line once they are each done.

3) Link Layer Transport – If brain-to-brain interfacing was easy, there’d be an RFC for it already. In this day and age, we use words — written and oral — to do brain-to-brain interface. The pods use chemical interfaces to do it faster, but it’s still s-l-o-w compared to internal thought and silicon computers. To share a thought, they have to form it in a node mind, bundle it up into a chemical format, excrete it (they have pads at the wrist and neck for this), and pass it to their cohort. Talk about your air gap. This transport layer includes skin, air, and bloodstream. There’s a lot of lag there; a pod could take minutes to reach a conclusion that a normal human does in seconds.

4) Complex brain == complex thought == complex insanity – Sure, it might take longer to reach a single conclusion, but if you could talk over every decision you make with four other people, you’re going to make good decisions. But what if the pod is wrong? Pods use something called pod consensus to guarantee validity – each decision is rigorously analyzed before being agreed to. This is a way to guard against pod instability – emergence can be delicate.

5) And the Lower Orders? – If you can group-mind humans, why not dogs, or cats, or cows, or bears? Sure. It makes the fauna funner! But what if your dog is smarter than you are? Sorry, that’s a different story.

6) Overmind your Own Business – Humanity can be broken into three groups in my future – singletons, or normal humans like you and me. Pods, or group minds of 2, 3, 4, and 5 humans. The Community, mostly gone in a Singularity Event, but composed of billions of minds working in concert. A pod member can understand the whole of their thoughts, but the Community is so complex, a member can’t fathom it at all. Can you trust your own mind? What is your hindbrain up to anyway?

I write for the implications. We live in a linked world, not as linked as Apollo’s, but everything that we do, posit, or think is tied to the things around us. Science often models the world by simplifying it; science fiction models the world with as complex a model as the writer can create. Science fiction authors write about the big ideas, but what they are really exploring is what the big ideas mean to us.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my book. See you on the other side of the Singularity. Maybe.


Read Paul Melko’s Livejournal here.

26 Comments on “The Big Idea: Paul Melko”

  1. Paul Melko is another member of the Ohio SF/F Cabal (our motto: There’s More Of Us Than You Think™)

    There’s two of you? I’m having a hard time reconciling just one of you.

  2. I just read the anthology he’s talking about (Live Without a Net) a couple weeks ago, on a train ride home from the West, and his story made me think I wish there was more to this story. Then I saw his new novel mentioned on Spacejock’s blog (the guy that makes yWriter software, etc), and now here. I will definitely have to track down this novel.

  3. 3 sounds unsanitary. I guess I need to buy the dang book to figure out how the blood brain barrier is crossed. Sounds fantastic though, and is on my Amazon list now.

    Whose turn is it to be Ohio Ninja Assassin today?

  4. Damn, now there’s a book that has just found its way onto my reading list. Fortunately, I now have a job and can afford necessities like books again.

  5. To be a real cabal don’t our last names have to spell something? SHVMB doesn’t roll off the tongue.

  6. I decided it was like a token ring system. I know! It’s old tech, but I needed a computer analog.

    Hey. HEY! Token ring may be ‘old’ but I hope you are not implying that ethernet is newer or something.

    Ethernet is the older of the two and really caught on because it was cheaper, even though the initial design did not scale very well.

    In ethernet you listen all the time. If you want to talk you talk but also listen to hear if someone else talked at the same time. If so you both shut up and each wait a random but short time and then do the same thing again.

    This is great for small groups, but imagine an auditorium full of people all trying to talk at the same time. Yeah, scaling is a problem. So the idea of hubs and subnets came about.

    Still it was the cheap cables and adapters that allowed ethernet to mature into what we know now.

    Oh, and the name was stupid. The idea of aether is so old the Greeks were thinking about it, but Michelson and Morley proved there is no ether way back in 1887.

    Yeah, I know, I’m pedantic. I started my computer career testing MAC and link layer protocols. Now RLOOP (Rocket Loop), that was old tech.

  7. Sounds very much like the Tines in Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep”

    I really enjoyed the exploration of the Tine’s thoughts / behaviors / ‘implications’ in that one. Did Melko take Vinge as inspiration or is this one of those “arose independently in the wild” situations? Either way, this definitely looks like a book I’ll watch for.

    Note: I’m not accusing Melko of plagiarism just noting a similarity, that may not even be all that pronounced.

  8. So how do these group minds compare to the Tines of Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep? It sounds like a very similar idea.

  9. I read “Strength Alone” and “The Summer of the Seven” when they came out in Asimov’s, and my head ‘sploded. I look forward to repeating the experience with this novel.

    Steven@15: with the Tines, individual units can shift from one group-mind to another, like chunks of Eastern Europe passing back and forth among Poland, Germany, and Russia. Melko’s pods have fixed membership.

  10. I have read Vinge’s work, of course, but did not consciously draw on his work to craft the plurals in my world. We’re dealing with networks and synergies, so the same ideas apply. Group minds have a long history in SF, and Paul DiFilippo mentions several of them in this review: I should note I didn’t read any of them. :)

  11. That link doesn’t work, Paul.

    I should mention Sturgeon’s “More than Human” which is based on the idea of “group personhood,” which takes the group mind idea a little bit further. That was published in 1953, so the idea is easily more than 50 years old.

    Of course, I happen to think that most of the group person is psychotic, and when I read it years ago I hated it. Imagine my surprise when it was named one of the 50 most important science fiction books of the last 50 years.

  12. I’m effing excited! Can’t wait to get my hands on this book, and the Walls of the Universe (when that’s coming out…)

    Thanks John,


  13. “I decided it was like a token ring system. I know! It’s old tech, but I needed a computer analog.”

    Well, I suppose it’s a better model than a Tolkien ring…

  14. So who all lives in Ohio?

    Barzak, Buckell, Finlay, Keyes, Landis, Leigh, Melko, Moffett, Resnick, Russell, Snyder, Scalzi, Slonczewski, Swann, Valente

    Anyone else? I’m sure a missed a bunch. I’ll stand by my statement that everyone has a major “brush with Ohio” at least once in their life.

  15. Everybody is either from or has family in Ohio. This is my personal theory (and if they aren’t from or have family in Ohio, they’re from or have family in Michigan).

  16. Not a decent vowel among them. We’ll never spell anything with those letters, unless we use the ‘sometimes F’ rule.

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