You’re a time traveler, lost and alone somewhere in Earth’s history. You’ve got a busted time machine that you have no real hope of repairing, and are thus seemingly condemned to living out the scant remains of your life in a world that is, at best, lacking in the creature comforts of your era, and at worst, devoid of any trace of human civilization. That unlikely but unpleasant scenario kicks off Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller. The title is impressively accurate. The first part, anyway.
The book is purportedly a guide for time travelers, made from futuristic materials and discovered embedded in pre-Cambrian rock. At some point in the future, Chronotix Solutions will invent the FC3000(tm) personal time machine. Individuals may lease the machine for travel to any point whatsoever in history and, given the particular theory of time travel at play here, do whatever they wish in the past. Since such visits generate alternate timelines, there’s no conceivable way to do any damage to the traveler’s original timeline. Successful journeys return the traveler to their original frame of reference, but the stranded will find themselves stuck in a newly created timeline branching off from the moment of their arrival.
The book suggests a novel solution for the stranded: figure out when you are, and then rebuild civilization from the literal ground up as a means of making life bearable. From the foundational elements of civilization (spoken and written language, numbers, etc.) to more advanced concepts like farming, chemistry, and medicine, the handbook offers step-by-step instructions to jump-starting the evolution of human civilization.
The first thing to do, then, is to orient yourself in time. Writer (or, in the book’s conceit, discoverer) Ryan North and illustrator Lucy Bellwood offer some ideas about that in the form of a handy yes/no flowchart. (Are there dinosaurs? Can you breathe the air?) One of the first hints this is something other than a sci-fi romp or a book of science-related humor is found on these pages—the flowchart includes accurate depictions of the Big Dipper and Southern Cross constellations as they would appear at various points in history. In this way, the time travel premise becomes a nifty vehicle for legitimate science and history, made more entertaining by the snarky style and North’s own asides.
North is best known for his his choose-your-path Shakespeare books Romeo and/or Juliet and To Be or Not to Be, as well as for Eisner Award-winning work on comics like Jughead, Adventure Time,and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, so his comedy bona fides are well established. And, this book is funny: the introduction suggests we’re getting a repair guide for indestructible time machines; the next page apologizes, clarifying that there are no user-serviceable parts. Tables on the creation of various chemicals include handy bits on the ways in which they’re likely to kill you; a section on hide tanning makes clear just how gross the process of tanning is. The snarky tone isn’t surprising, but how much real information is packed into the pages is—that section on tanning really does teach you how to tan a hide, and the appendix on chemical creation really does describe how to create and/or find useful substances. There are sections on glassmaking, the usefulness of trigonometry, and the invention of musical instruments. Even where the subject is too complicated to truly provide all of the steps needed to reproduce it, there is a case made for the importance of said invention or concept.
If Ryan North is (probably) lying about having discovered this book trapped in stone, it’s still one I wouldn’t mind having on me in the event of unexpected time displacement. Certainly without it, I’d be at a loss, my head full of sophisticated knowledge that I wouldn’t know what to do with. (I’d know to wash my hands, but I’d have no idea how to make soap.) How to Invent Everything is a genuinely entertaining bit of pop science writing, a brief history of human civilization with a wicked sense of humor and sci-fi set-up that make it as fun as it is informative. It’san essential read for would-be time travelers as well as anyone who really wants to know all the various uses for an alpaca.