The Big Idea: Paul Melko

Our informal Week ‘O Big Ideas continues today with an appearance by Paul Melko, member of the Ohio SF/F Cabal (motto: “There’s more of us than you think”), whose latest multiverse-hopping book The Walls of the Universe is getting the sort of starred reviews (“With imagination and sympathy, Melko makes the journey genuinely exciting” — Publishers Weekly) that make other writers wish they could pop into a closeby universe, steal his book, and then come back and claim it for their own. Not gonna happen, guys. Deal with it.

In this universe, however, Melko has a point to make about how writers should never throw away a “failed” idea — there’s a chance that “failure” could come back to succeed, in a big way.


My second novel, The Walls of the Universe, started its accordion existence as a novel, one of my first, if not the very first novel I’d ever written. As is often the case with such creatures, I was not happy with it and returned it from whence it came – a post office box in New Jersey. Some time later, at my wife’s urging, I returned to it and realized how much I liked the central idea of a universe-jumping teen, trying to get home. I distilled the story into a novella and that story appeared in Asimov’s SF. The novella won that year’s readers’ poll for best novella, which is an award I truly value. When it came time to write a sophomore novel, I decided to expand the novella into a full-length book. So from big to small to big again, my accordion novel is now in print.

My wife isn’t the only one who enjoyed the cross-universe hopping adventures of John Rayburn. The novella was also nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards. I was going to so many award ceremonies, I had to invest in a new tuxedo, one that wasn’t powder blue. The 2007 Hugos were in Japan, and I decided to make the trip half-way around the world. Not only was I a nominee myself, but I was accepting — if things turned out well — for either of my good friends Tim Pratt or Ben Rosenbaum, both nominated in the short story category. I felt I had little chance to accept for either, as they were in a category with the perennial Hugo powerhouse Neil Gaiman. Nor did I harbor any hope in my own category; it was an honor just to attend as a nominee in Yokohama. And I looked good in my tuxedo.

Yes, as expected, my story did not win the Novella Hugo (at least not in this universe), but shocked and amazed, I stood and accepted for Tim Pratt for his fabulous story “Impossible Dreams.” Second only to winning one is accepting a Hugo for a good friend. It was an honor and a dream to stand on that stage and receive the rocket for Tim.

We accepters had the choice of boxing the statue up immediately or keeping it until the next day. Duh. I kept it. The Hugo, as you probably know, is a phallic metal rocket ship, set atop a base that is designed by each year’s convention. The base designed by Nippon 2007 included an Ultraman figurine that stood a millimeter higher than the rocket itself. Perhaps he was meant to be fighting it, because he wasn’t fitting inside it. Maybe he rode it like a surfboard. In any case, I was gladly, madly clutching Tim’s Hugo, one hand on Ultraman and one on the rocket, as I walked from the awards ceremony to the after party. I can only imagine the grin on my face. I passed through a group of Japanese fans on the way.



Every one of them turned to smile. Picture flashes went off.

“It’s not really mine,” I tried to explain. “It’s Tim Pratt’s. Oh, what the hell. Nevermind.”



I paused, waved, then pushed on, bemused by the reception. I thought the fans were just excited after the ceremony. But no. Everywhere I went, chants of “Hugo, Hugo, Hugo!” followed me. In one room, I was serenaded with the words “Congratulations, Dear Hugo” sung to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” In every room on the party floor, drinks and slaps on the back were offered. I have never been so the center of attention — for a few hours I got to feel like a rock star. An otherworldly experience, indeed.

I urge everyone to accept a Hugo in Yokohama at least once in their lifetime. When I returned home, I jumped into the revisions for the novel version of the novella.

The Walls of the Universe is a parallel-universe adventure story about a teenager from Ohio who gets tricked out of his life by a version of himself from another universe. There are thousands of universes out there, and all one needs to travel among them is a transfer device. How the original John Rayburn got his hands on a broken transfer device will have to wait for another novel; this one covers how two absolutely identical young men deal with having their lives snatched away from them. John Prime, who stole the life of John Rayburn, tries to settle into his new life passing stolen ideas as his own. John Rayburn, ripped from his life by John Prime, is desperate to return home before Prime ruins everything. The same person, in nearly the same circumstance, tempted by the same solution. Ultimately each has to make peace with where they end up.

The book also questions value. If there is a near infinite number of Mona Lisas, a trillion Guttenberg Bibles, or a billion versions of you, what value does any one of those have? Are items that exist in only one universe more valuable than those parallel items? Are singletons more desirable than multiples? Once you start traveling the multiverse, you become a singleton, since you have snapped yourself away from all your parallel selves. Unless there are an infinite number of multiverses. Ow. My head hurts.

What I love most about science fiction is that it is a celebration of ideas. We explore our ideas with story. And the best of those stories we laud with rocket ship-shaped awards for being cool. I’m glad to be a part of this universe of science fiction, and hopefully there are an infinite number of universes where science fiction is a vital, important genre.

Thanks for reading about my new novel today!


Walls of the Universe: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Walls of the Universe. Visit Paul Melko’s LiveJournal here.

RIP, Philip Jose Farmer

He passed away last night at 91. Another one gone. Here’s a brief blurb on it from his hometown paper; I’m sure more will be forthcoming. Sympathies to family and lovers of his work.