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The Art Of Invention by Steven J. Paley

01/03/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Art Of Invention in the USA - or Buy The Art Of Invention in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 236 page illustrated indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: $20.00 (US), GBP 18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-223-0.

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There are books that I read that I think are interesting and some I think are important and relevant to our genre. ‘The Art Of Invention’ by Steven J. Paley is definitely important because Science Fiction writers as he notes share something in common with inventors in that we often meander through a lot of esoteric subjects, see something others miss and make something of it as a story. You’ve often seen me do it with review book subjects that are borderline to our overall remit but can provide useful information and background and I’m a glutton for knowledge. I’ve always maintained that you always need a decent background of knowledge and at least learn a new subject beyond layman level each year to not only do that but also know how to research effectively. These days, I tend to do that with multiple subjects but that’s in the nature of how much review reading I do a year and never see any of it as a struggle to understand a variety of subjects. If that isn’t a demonstration that the technique works, I don’t know.

The reason why I was interested in this book was because it bridges the gap of invention and technology. I did have a déjà vu moment when Paley started going over old ground of the development of the paperclip which was covered in another Prometheus book, which he actually acknowledges in his bibliography, but then he explores new ground of how a problem is addressed as to finding a solution. If you want to give an elephant clean teeth you don’t invent a big toothbrush but look at the diet instead. In other words, you look at a problem from a different angle or lateral think, which is what we do in SF. Home turf and we speak the same language and everything becomes extremely relevant. If you’re an SF reader, you get used to SF authors looking at things from odd angles to the point of it being a normality. I suspect, the same is true of SF writers except, I hate to say, a lot of them are going over familiar ground today, simply because it’s the accepted tropes rather than adding any radical thoughts to the subject. I think reading this book will re-vitalise both SF reader and writer into what they need out of the subject. Invention comes in many forms and should never be underestimated.

This book also came out in December 2010 and Paley pays attention to modern day living inventors as much as older inventors examining everything from computer development and new applications – computer games weren’t even considered originally after all, let alone home use – to making them accessible to all. I love his quote from Alan Kay on page 28, ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’ That should resound in all of our hearts. Science Fiction has inspired invention in all kinds of areas as I saw on TV in February with developments in bionic arms which thirty years ago would not have been seen as possible.

If you are going to be an inventor, then you also have to work on despite having the odds against you. Did you know that the inventor of the photocopier had twenty different companies reject him before one, that later became Xerox, took the risk and thought that might be a good idea? You have to be immensely resilient to carry on against such odds. I hope, therefore, that this book is in the hands of every major company chairman in looking at every new idea twice before rejecting it as a non-moneymaker. A lot of the time, as Paley points out, an inventor will have the solution to a problem before the problem is recognised. Creativity sees an order out of the chaos around it which is again, what is involved when writing SF. Even better, Paley explains the process in a language that anyone can understand and it is this clarity that raises this book’s importance.

Something that frequently comes up in these kinds of books is to make any technology simpler (not simple) and intuitive to use. Here, examples are given with new mobile phones and pointing out the design flaw with digital watches where you still need to refer to the handbook when adjusting the time. I agree with Paley that software tends to have gotten more complicated over the years than making it easier to use but I tend to think the manufacturers think adding more bits and bobs make it different than improve their product. Users rarely look below the surface of what makes the software engine work as long as the end product is easy to use. If you are see a multiple pile of controls all the time, you are far more likely to go for the ones you recognise and ignore the rest so I totally agree with him that better intuitive controls or options coming up to guide certain decisions should be in mind by software engineers these days.

You don’t have to be an inventor to read this book. There is so much about this book that can be applied to all sorts of thoughts in the subjects you work in that I would place this as required reading for its insight and what you can learn from it. Paley even covers the dry periods when no ideas are forthcoming as a means to come back stronger and better which is very reassuring. Don’t miss it.

GF Willmetts

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