Telepathy is a common trope in science fiction, with the Vulcan Mind Meld being probably the best-known example. However, one of the most original and striking treatments of the subject is the novel Singularity’s Ring by Paul Melko, which features pods of genetically-engineered humans who can communicate by scent.

“They produce chemical memories, and then actually physically touch each other’s hands, and pass the memories to one another,” Melko says in Episode 310 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

He got the idea when he was invited to write a piece for the anthology Live Without a Net, a collection of science fiction stories in which the internet does not exist. He immediately started dreaming up biological alternatives to information technology.

“So instead of having a silicon network, a machine-based network, we have networks of humans,” he says. “Instead of an internet they have a network between themselves.”

As an engineer, it was important to Melko not to rely on dubious concepts like ESP, hence the idea of characters who communicate through chemical signals and pheromones. The limitations of scent-based communication also suggested unique dramatic possibilities. “Because they have to actually touch each other, when someone becomes isolated there are problems,” he says.

The result is an unusually grounded and textured depiction of thought-sharing. Telepathy is usually presented as a straightforward superpower, but in Singularity’s Ring the ability feels more like any other technological advance—it comes with great promise, but also has major downsides.

“Since they’re a group of six people, they have to reach consensus,” Melko says. “They can reach ideas that are more complex than an individual human can make, but it takes them a longer time, because they have to pass the information like a vortex around the network connection that they have.”

Listen to the complete interview with Paul Melko in Episode 310 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Paul Melko on The Tower of Not-Earth:

“One of the books that I’m working on right now is about an office building that suddenly gets transported to another universe, a jungle universe, and so you have all these people that are typically in an office—you’ve got a security guard, you’ve got upper management, you’ve got middle management, you’ve got marketing people, and suddenly they go from a business relationship to a survival relationship. … You start thinking about what is available to you to survive in a [parallel] world, and you look at paper cutters. You have swords, on every floor. Because next to every printer we have a paper cutter, with one of those big blades. We always say, ‘Be careful there, and lock it down when you’re done.’ But if you tear that thing off, that’s a sword.”

Paul Melko on The Walking Dead:

The Walking Dead is super-frustrating because it feels like it’s just an engineering problem to be solved. Zombies walk in a straight line, so all you have to do is build a trench and have a crooked bridge and they will never get to you. It’s just like, that’s it, that’s the solution. And of course as The Walking Dead progressed it wasn’t the zombies who were the problem, it was other humans, but in the beginning, it’s like, it’s an engineering problem. Zombies are an engineering problem, especially slow zombies, and it was very frustrating to watch. . … If they’re the faster, smarter zombies from I Am Legend, you might be in trouble, but slow zombies, just climb a tree or build a treehouse.”

Paul Melko on his story “The Teosinthe War”:

“‘The Teosinthe War’ postulated the idea of using parallel universes to do social experiments, and so somebody wanted to test if civilization could have been started in North and South America, or Central America, and so they use parallel universes to test the theory. So basically instead of spinning up a virtual server or computer, you spin up a new universe and test your theories by tweaking parameters—in this case they provided a domesticable corn earlier in the evolution of society in North America than it actually showed up, and provided them with a grain that would allow civilization to grow faster, in the hopes of seeing a civilization grow to match the European civilization at the same time.”

Paul Melko on hotel libraries:

“The shelves were not full-sized shelves, the shelves were smaller than that, and they couldn’t fit books on the shelves if they were full-size, they would stick off the edge. So they had taken a buzzsaw or a jigsaw and cut every single book in half, to fit them on the shelf. … But then, because of that crew and the dark humor that they have, [my group started] listing the titles of the books that were on the shelves. And so someone says, ‘Oh look, A Tale of One City.’ Or, ‘Fahrenheit 256.’ Or, ‘Oh look, The One Tower from Tolkien.’ And so it ended up in a long set of punning jokes about all the half-books that were on the shelf.”

More Great WIRED Stories

– Did YouTube phenomenon Poppy steal her style from another star?
– The physics—and physicality—of extreme juggling
– Why a trendy, expensive countertop air fryer can’t outperform a simple sheet pan
– The vehicle of the future has two wheels, handlebars, and is a bike
– Blockchains are super secure and slightly hard to understand, but here’s what you need to know