What We're Reading: "How to Invent Everything: a Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller" by Ryan North
It’s a common enough scenario: you rent a time machine and set the dial to your favorite era in history. Just for a little sightseeing, you know? Instead your malfunctioning time machine hurls you back hundreds of thousands of years into the past and refuses to budge once you’re there. You are stuck somewhere in the past, with no way to return to the future and no one around to sue. What do you do next?
Hopefully, someone has stashed a copy of How to Invent Everything: a Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller in your time machine. It won’t enable you to get to the future, but it will help bring the future to you. You may already know some of the basic survival skills like building a shelter and obtaining food, for instance. That’s all well and good in the short term, but to really thrive, you’re going to need to establish a civilization. How to Invent Everything will provide you with all the steps required to fast-track the whole process while (ideally) avoiding some of history's most egregious missteps.
North starts off with the basics: language, written and spoken, as well as "non-sucky" numbers (numerals, not hash marks). Once you're able to communicate, it’s onto other essentials for a thriving civilization, such as agriculture, medicine, mechanical engineering, computers and so on. He even provides instructions on how to invent art, music, and philosophy!
Each section of the book is full of practical advice on inventing everything you need to survive being accidentally stranded in the past. Interesting facts from our timeline will have you feeling smug about how much faster your civilization is able to progress than the one you came from. Moreover, helpful notations let you know which particular skills will be required for any given innovation. It’s helpful if you’re not starting completely from scratch; you can build on what’s already been invented in whatever time period you’ve landed.
Time traveller or no, there’s a lot of fascinating information for readers of all types in Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything. North (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Romeo and/or Juliet, etc..) tackles an ambitious concept with his trademark sense of humor and it’s an entirely successful endeavor. Be prepared to laugh out loud as you marvel at the complex network of ideas, inventions, and concepts that serve as the scaffolding upon which a civilization is built. It also serves as a great reminder that history can be super-weird and that many of the concepts we take for granted took thousands of years for humanity to get around to developing. North’s Guide is that rare gem that makes you think as much as it makes you laugh and if your time machine strands you in a hostile time period, well, it could literally save your life.