Interview w/ Paul Melko

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Here you go! An interview with the author of Ten Sigmas, which I reviewed here. After an hour of formatting the text, since it was a little wonky for some unknown reason, it is ready for your viewing pleasure! Thanks again to Mr. Melko for his time and the great answers he gave to my questions!

Thanks for doing this interview with me. First, could you tell us a little about yourself (your history as writer, etc.)?

My fiction has been appearing in print since 1996. I’ve published dozens of stories and they’ve been translated into Spanish, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, and Romanian. My fiction has appeared in Asimov’s SF, Strange Horizons, Talebones, Realms of Fantasy, and other places. My novella “The Walls of the Universe” was nominated for Nebula, Hugo, and Sturgeon Awards — all in one year! — and it won the Asimov’s Readers Award for Best Novella. My first novel, Singularity’s Ring, appeared in February of this year from Tor Books. My second novel, The Walls of the Universe, will come out next winter.
I’m trained as an engineer, with a masters in Nuclear Engineering, and this affects all my work. My characters are logical, thoughtful, and practical (I hope). They’re problem solvers. Recently, I started studying for my MBA. This education has colored my writing as well, and I find myself adding economic details that might otherwise have been ignored in my previous futures.
I am an active member of SFWA, sitting on the board as the South-Central Regional Director. I also am chairman of the Grievance Committee.
I live in Ohio with my wonderful wife and four fairly wonderful children. The older kids and I are studying Taekwondo.

What is it about science fiction that appeals to you? What are some of your favorite authors of today and the past?

My biggest influences were Heinlein, Farmer, and Harrison. I never read Clarke, and I never read Asimov except for some classics. My first books were the Heinlein juveniles, specifically Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and The Rolling Stones. Farmer is the most influential on me.
Right, now I’m reading quite a bit of YA. My eldest daughter has started reading and I try to keep up with her books. It’s hopeless, as she reads a book a day. I am the proud papa.

What are you currently reading, what have you just read, and what do you hope to read?

I’ve been reading Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Sidon, as well as various MBA texts and business cases. Of the recent business texts, the most interesting has been The Mystery of Capitalism by Hernando De Soto. It posulates why capitalism works so well in certain countries but fails miserably in others. His thesis is that the evolved rules of capital in some countries — land ownership and use of collateral to gain loans — allow easy creation of more capital with the capital on hand. Whereas in
other countries, there is too much dead capital — land and material with no clear ownership –, and so there is no way to leverage that capital to make more.

“Ten Sigmas”, being a book of short stories, explores a variety of different technological avenues (including one about superheroes) from the dangers of fiddling with the past to the dangers of traversing between universes/dimensions. What would you say is a strength of the short form and do you prefer the short form to the novel? How would you describe the works presented in “Ten Sigmas” (the pitch, basically)?

“Ten Sigmas” is my collection of science fiction stories, and all of them are tainted by my training and history. I don’t write down endings, and there’s not a story in the collection in which the world is worse off at the end, except for perhaps one. I am an optimist, I am a problem solver, and most of my characters are too.
I love the short story. I learned to write with the short story. The short story is the test vehicle for ideas in literature. You can get away with so much in 3000 words that a novel just can’t sustain. You can try new devices. You can take on an affectation and see where it goes. You can play games with the reader. The novel is larger, but not as free. The novel reader isn’t as forgiving of experimentation.

On the subject of short stories, do you see the short form disappearing in the near future or do you feel that it will prevail and grow? (This is mostly addressing the concerns over the magazine market that seems to be losing ground, though perhaps it really isn’t in some ways)

It is sad that most writers end up moving to novels for monetary reasons. Alas, the number of markets out there is small for short fiction, and declining. I hope the short story doesn’t go the way of the dinosaur; I doubt if it will. There will always be a place for a tightly constructed tale. Most likely e-zines and anthologies will take the place of the magazines as their subscription bases dwindle.

The story notes say you wrote “Singletons In Love” for a Lou Anders anthology. What was the inspiration for creating these ‘pods’? What made you think of that as a future possibility where the Internet might not exist?

If the human race were to give up computers and hardwired networking, there would still be a need for dense computation. In the world I posit, I assume that computation is taken over by human computers — plurals of humans that use the complexity of their networks to form higher thoughts. I love the idea of the pod: a pod is powerful yet fragile. Pods are hard to form and call fall apart if traumatized. Yet they can make intuitive leaps that normal humans can’t.

Many of your stories deal with characters making either bad decisions or ill-informed decisions (“The Teosinthe War” and “Walls of the Universe” for example, one which results in people actually dying). Could you talk a little bit about the impulsiveness of us humans to do things without necessarily thinking about the consequences? Do you think such an observation is a good one to make in relation to your work?

Humans make bad decisions all the time. Logic and thoughtfulness disappear when it comes to sex, money, and instant gratification, and we humans are capable of any self-serving illogic to justify our actions. And yet, at the same time, we are capable of sacrifice, of love, of responsibility, of respect. I will say it again; I am an optimist. I assume that any unknown human will act in his or her best nature.
There is an assumption in business that our associates and business partners act in the pursuit of rational self-interest. If each of us pursues our own rational happiness, mankind is served ultimately by those actions. Too bad we all can’t be rational all the time.
Yes, my characters make bad decisions, but in all my stories, perhaps save “Dysfunctional Family Cat” the characters and society ends up better than before.

What do you hope people will take with them from reading this collection?

I can’t really claim to be anything more than an entertainer. I hope that readers are distracted for a few hours by reading my stories. I hope my ideas spark some interest, just as they are interesting to me.

Why did you choose to go with a small press like Fairwood over a larger press (say Tor or Pyr)?

There’s not a whole lot of interest in collections from the larger presses. Fairwood, which is associated with Talebones, is run by my friend Patrick Swenson. Talebones was very good to me early on in my career, publishing a half-dozen of my works. And Ten Sigmas was good for Talebones, the first story from there that made it into Dozois’ Year’s Best collection. Fairwood Press has put out excellent collections by James Van Pelt, Ken Rand, William Nolan, and Louise Marley.

What are some advantages of being with a small press? Alternately, what are some advantages of being with a larger press, since you’ve now been published with both? Do you prefer one over the other or do you find them both great markets to work in?

It’s a matter of the best venue for the product. Collections of stories aren’t going to sell as well as novels from the big publishers. But there’s profit to be made there for the small press. I have a lot more control with Fairwood, working with Patrick on layout and art decisions. I had pretty much full control over any content that I wanted in the collection. With a larger publisher, I deliver a product and from my perspective the book starts a grand, invisible journey from manuscript to finished book, sending postcards along the way to me. I get checkpoints, but not too much input after I turn in the product.

Could you talk a little bit about other works you have in the making? You have a novel called “Singularity’s Ring”. Could you talk a bit about that?

Singularity’s Ring is the story of a post-singularity Earth that has been inherited by biologically modified plurals of humans. The novel stems from stories in my collection, “Singletons in Love,” “Strength Alone,” and “The Summer of the Seven.” Each of those was published separately and is collected in Ten Sigmas for the first time. “The Summer of the Seven” was cut from the final novel, since it didn’t add to the overall plot arc of the novel, but it does cover some of the process of pod-building. Its themes of scientific responsibility are important to me. I should note that in the short stories, the pods are sextets, while in the novel they are quintets. My agent and editor felt that the main character should be a smaller order.
Talk about your major rewrites!
Singularity’s Ring was aggressive for me. It tells the story from the point of view of each of the pod members, one by one. The final chapter is from their semi-omniscient viewpoint. Its structure is as significant as its plot, and ties directly to character.
My next novel is called Walls of the Universe, and is based on the novella of the same name in my collection. In Walls, a teenaged farmboy is tricked out of his life by a doppleganger, a version of himself from another universe. The book follows the young man’s adventures trying to get his life back. Expect it from Tor in Winter 2009.

Random question: If you could be one type of animal either in our current world or in the fictional world of someone else, or even yourself, what would you be and why?


About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

One thought on “Interview w/ Paul Melko

  1. Great interview & it helps getting to know the author! Now I am thinking back to reading “Friday” by Heinlein and looking forward to exploring Melko’s writings. Thanks!

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