Russian Problem Solving Technique and the Art of Writing (17/1/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

A long time ago in galaxy far far away, or so it feels, I once learned about a Russian methodology for solving technical problems. Genrich Altshuller’s Teoriya Resheniya Izobreatatelskikh Zadach, or the Theory of Inventive Problem solving. At the time I found much that appealed to me in this, and rather rated it. As a means to solve purely engineering problems, I still do, but it’s been an increasingly long time since I’ve had much call for it. Odd, then, that after reading that Strange Horizons review and the comments that followed it, I should find myself thinking of poor old Altshuller.

I’m not saying anything about the review itself. I’ve had worse, although perhaps not so coherent in its condemnation. The ensuing debate in the comments got me thinking, though. See the foundation of Russian Problem Solving Technique was an immense statistical analysis of Russian patent applications, and the thing I got reminded of was this:

  • About 1% of patents had breakthrough science at their core – i.e. they were based on something fundamentally new.
  • About 10% of patents were new applications of existing science – i.e. the technology was original but the underlying principles were not.
  • The remaining patents were modifications and refinements of existing patented technologies. I.e. they contained nothing really functionally new.

The Strange Horizon comments got me thinking how this applied to books. Now and then something startlingly different comes along, but its actually not all that often, and most books, really don’t push any boundaries. Same epic fantasy tropes, different magic system. Same space opera, different tech dressing. And if they tell their stories well, I think that’s OK, isn’t it?

I say poor old Altshuller, by the way, because he spent a good chunk of his time in the Gulag for his troublesome theories and later wrote a few science fiction novels, some of which doubtless received 1-star Amazon reviews.