What To Do When Your Time Machine is Broken
Ryan North presents a step-by-step survival guide for the stranded time traveler to invent everything
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Let’s say that you’ve rented a time machine. You travel to another era, you explore, you marvel, you enjoy. But afterward, when you climb back into your time machine, you discover that the thing won’t start. It’s broken. Bad news: you’re stuck in a time that isn’t yours.
What do you do?
The answer, according to Ryan North’s wonder of a book How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, is not to try to fix the time machine — in North’s fictional universe, they’re unrepairable — but to instead “fix” the time that you’ve found yourself in by re-inventing all of the technology that you desire, from scratch. Invention, the book quietly suggests, is its own form of time travel.
With this wonderfully playful premise, North (author of Dinosaur Comics, Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable Path Adventure, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) presents a step-by-step guide, complete with flowcharts, a technology tree, scientific appendices, and footnotes, for inventing everything from language to farming to mining to bicycles to computers. Would you like to learn the Universal Edibility Test? Perhaps you’d find it helpful to have major schools of philosophy “summed up in a few quippy sentences about high-fives”? And maybe you’d like to invent buttons way before they were invented in our timeline?
The scale of How to Invent Everything is downright encyclopedic, and the voice, on every page, bubbles with humor. Reading it brought me back to all the afternoons I’d spent as a kid flipping through the big reference books in my local library, and then eagerly running home to tell anyone who’d listen what I’d learned. One of this book’s great achievements is the way it so gracefully combines scholarly rigor with youthful wonder.
Ryan North and I corresponded over email and talked about the book’s formal hybridity, the relationship between technology and civilization, and whether or not storytelling itself is a technology.
Joseph Scapellato: One of the many things that I love about How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler is how it so exuberantly embraces hybridity. It’s a work of nonfiction, but with a science-fiction frame; it’s part guide, part how-to, and part real-and-imagined history; it’s packed with diagrams, charts, and schematics; and underneath it all runs a lively through-line of voice-driven humor. Can you talk about the genesis of this ambitious project?
Ryan North: The basic idea for the book is something I’ve been thinking about since I was a kid: if I went back in time, what could I change? Once you exhaust the “give myself lotto numbers” angle you’re left with the — to me very vivid — image of being trapped in the past, describing how great the future is, and everyone around you saying “okay, great! How do you invent it?” and me just… shrugging. For decades I’d wanted a book like How to Invent Everything, and finally I decided to write it.
After the book was announced I saw many many people saying “oh wow, I’ve wondered about this exact same scenario myself!” so it seems this fantasy wasn’t unique to just me. I’m really glad to hear that, because it was (and still is) one of my favourite things to think about.
The earliest drafts had a bit more “future history” in them: I had all this detail on the world the time machine had come from. But I ended up taking out most of that and leaving it mostly as broadly suggestive hints, because I realized: once you invent time travel, you’ve invented everything. Need a phaser? Travel to the future, and if it can be invented, you’ll find it there. So I realized I was trying to describe what was effectively the singularity of singularities, and instead refocused on just one element of it: the tourism. The idea that in the future time machines would be rented out willy-nilly to the general public the way Winnebago are now struck me as both a crazy — and really interesting — idea.
I actually wrote a fair section of the book — almost a quarter of it — before I started thinking “okay, yes, this will work”. Because while yes, it’s a comedy book, and while yes, none of us are likely to be stranded in the past anytime soon — I still wanted it to be a sincere book. I wanted it to be an actual guide to actually reinventing civilization, from scratch, in any period in Earth’s history, and I wasn’t at all certain such a book was even possible. I was really relieved to discover that it is!
JS: Do you have any favorite time-travel books/films? (Especially ones that might have influenced the way that you thought about this project?)
RN: Oh my gosh, this whole book exists because I spent most of ages 6–12 thinking about Back To The Future and what I’d do in variations of that situation. And I’m just realizing this now, but How To Invent Everything is really just Gray’s Sports Almanac — the book Marty takes back from the future to give himself an advantage in Back to the Future 2 — taken to its logical conclusion. Only instead of instructions on what horse to bet on, it’s instructions for everything. Marty could really cause a lot of trouble with this book.
Like I said though, the model of time travel used in the book is different than most stories or movies I’ve seen — including the one Marty deals with. By avoiding the one-timeline model and instead having each trip back in time create a new parallel timeline, time travel becomes “safe”, and I think there’s actually a lot of really interesting stories you can tell there!
I wanted “How to Invent Everything” to be an actual guide to actually reinventing civilization, from scratch, in any period in Earth’s history.
JS: The narrator — also named Ryan North — is steadily optimistic and encouraging, but quite critical, at times, of how long humanity went without making certain discoveries. He’s especially embarrassed about buttons:
Look, you know how a button works. We don’t need to explain this. They’re one of the simplest practical inventions we have…but figuring out how buttons work still took humans more than four thousand years […] Buttons could’ve been invented at just about any point in human history. Save humanity from doing the cultural equivalent of walking around with our fly down for four thousand years straight. Invent buttons already.
What, in your opinion, accounts for these long gaps between innovations?
RN: That’s one of the things that was so fun about this book. Lots of popular science takes the approach of “look at us humans, and look at the wonders we have created” — which, yes, is true. But having a book where the voice was “look at us humans, and look at all these times were, in retrospect, we were screwing up the entire time” — that’s fun. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of examples: the countless times we didn’t invent penicillin when we had everything we need to, or kept forgetting that vitamin C cures scurvy, or couldn’t figure out how buttons work, or [etc etc etc, the list goes on for so long].
I think you get these gaps because, in truth, invention is hard. To invent something, you have to take the world as it is, take those pieces lying around you, and put them together in a way nobody else has before to create something original that the world has never seen. That’s hard! And it’s what makes a book like How to Invent Everything possible: by laying out the answers, by showing you what one person can do on their own if they just have the advantage of knowing what they’re supposed to be doing — we can sidestep all those delays and uncertainty, and instead let you skip right to the fun part: making new things.
Buttons are a fun example because we got part of the way there, and then stopped. A modern person would see that and invent the button without even thinking about it, because we all know what the answer looks like. But if you don’t, you think attaching a shell to your shirt is already pretty great, because now you look handsome. You don’t know you can go further to make them practical as well as pretty. You don’t know what you don’t know.
I wonder a lot what scientific discoveries we’ll be looking back on in 200 years and saying “how could they not have seen that?”
JS: The book’s science-fiction frame — the premise that this guide was written in the future, sometime after 2043 — means that the reader is occasionally treated to footnotes that reference future inventions/events. For example: the eventual existence of time machines, weather control machines, and (my favorite) the fact that the moment when time travel is discovered becomes a popular destination for time travelers from the future to visit. At any point, did you sit down and plan out this future setting in detail, or did these references emerge spontaneously?
RN: Generally, most of the science fiction was added spontaneously as I wrote: either as a way to explain something that we don’t know the answer to (like, for example, why the reference kilograms are changing mass, or, in more fundamental questions, why precisely we sleep), or as a way to take a break from some more difficult concepts to have some fun in sci-fi land.
I love the idea that in this utopic future things are so great that that they have retail-market time travel, but people still want to take vacations to get away from it all. And if you think about it, given the model of time travel in the book (each trip back creates a new timeline that doesn’t impact the one you came from, so it’s impossible to mess things up for you/kill your own grandmother/etc) — that’s basically a holodeck. It’s an incredibly ethically-fraught holodeck, for sure, but it’s a scenario in which you can visit any point in history and do whatever you want, and at the end go back to the future again. It’s wildly irresponsible, but also, it would be really, really hard to resist. I can see why people travel through time, even given the non-zero risk of the time machine breaking, stranding you in the past, and forcing you to rebuild everything from scratch.
JS: You conducted a tremendous amount of research to write this book, as shown by the lengthy bibliography. What emerged from this research that you didn’t anticipate — that surprised you about the history of humans/technology?
RN: Hah, it’s funny you mention the bibliography! Originally my intention was to not have a bibliography — or at the very least put it only on a website — because there’d be no reason for this book designed to be read when you’re alone in the past to have one. But we ended up putting it in the book for a couple of reasons: I thought it was useful to be able to point people towards great texts if they wanted to know more, and it was at least a clue that all those facts and figures in the book are, in fact, real. So that ended up being baked into the premise: the book is from the future, I found it, and in preparing it for publication researched everything I could to verify that it was real — and in doing so, built that bibliography.
But! To answer your question: it was those delays in humans figuring out things that surprised me. Before I started I had this vague idea that as soon as something was possible to be invented, then we probably invented it soon afterwards. But that’s reasoning without factoring in all the ways humans can make things complicated, messy, and wrong. My favourite example in the text is how we learned — and then lost — both the causes of and cure for scurvy over a dozen times throughout history. You’d think something that useful would be remembered, but it’s fascinating how things can change and knowledge can be corrupted or lost. In the scurvy case, one of the reasons the disease returned was because the British had switched to a cheaper source of vitamin C (from lemon to lime juice), without realizing their limes had much less vitamin C in them. Then they started running it through copper pipes, which also destroys it. But they didn’t notice that their scurvy cure was now useless, because steamships had been invented (meaning sailors were spending less time at sea, away from those fresh fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C) and nutrition on land had improved too (meaning sailors had greater stores of vitamin C to begin with). It was only when they started to explore places like Antarctica that scurvy “came back”, and with the old cure apparently suddenly ineffective, they were back at square one.
It’s not hard to imagine how a quick tip from a single time traveller could have a massive effect on history here.
When it comes to building civilizations, you can pick and choose just about everything…except for stories. The one thing we can rely on about humans is that we’ll always tell each other about ourselves through stories.
JS: You have a background in computational linguistics, which no doubt came in handy when you were writing the language and computer sections of this book. What sections, though, were the most challenging for you to write or research, and why?
RN: Hah — I can actually give you the specific section: the bit on calculating dates and times for navigation and timekeeping. Some of these calculations are relatively easy if you have known-good stars to use, but since I wanted the book to be useful no matter what time period you’re trapped in, I couldn’t use any of that: the stars we see in the sky are moving, and though it seems slow from our perspective, go back a million years and any star charts I included would be useless. So they all had to be done based on the only star whose location WOULD be known no matter what time period you could survive in: our star, the sun.
And while on the surface it’s just “the Earth goes around the sun”, once you get into it in detail there’s so many things that are happening: the Earth is spinning, and that spin is at an angle, and it’s wobbling like a top, and it’s speeding up or slowing down depending on where in its orbit it is, and most of these values are cycling over time, etc, etc, etc. It turned out that getting all of these variables sorted across time was way more challenging that I thought, but I’m really proud of the chapter that resulted!
JS: How to Invent Everything makes an argument for what a civilization is (and isn’t). An early chapter, titled “Calorie Surplus: The End of Hunting and Gathering and the Beginning of Civilization,” gives a frank assessment of the challenges of farming — the “Extremely Garbage Features of Farming” — then ends on this note:
In light of these downsides, we would like to take this opportunity to remind you that it is inarguable that farming leads to calorie surpluses, which leads to specialization, which leads to innovations like apple pies, time machines, and the latest mass-market portable music players. If you work hard, you will produce these. If you hunt and gather, you will not. Instead, you will eat bugs you find under a rock. Best of luck with your decision.
A running theme is that certain core technologies are essential for civilization. In light of this, how do you define “civilization”? And what is this concept’s relationship, if any, to the state of being “civilized”?
RN: I see civilization beginning at the moment you look around and take the world not as it is, but as it could be. Pure hunting and gathering isn’t really a civilization, because you’re just taking what you can find — plus, since you’re always moving, you’re not building anything for the long term, because there is no long term: just the seasons of the endless now.
But the second you start saying “you know what? It can be done better.” — that’s when you start building a civilization. That’s when you start taking what you can find and combining it in new ways, better ways, to produce a world in which — ideally — other humans and yourself no longer need to worry about basics like food, heat, and protection, and can instead begin worrying about more interesting things, like what gravity is and how a global network of computers might work. You can do this in a hunting and gathering context, but farming is what makes it reliable, sustainable, and scalable.
As for the second part of your question: for me calling someone “civilized” means that that person is someone I can trust to act in an interest outside their own. A civilization means living with other people, and at some point when you’re living with other people — no matter who those people are — you’re going to need to be able to put the needs of the community above yourself. A civilized person will help someone pick up their dropped bag of groceries, because it’s the decent thing to do. An uncivilized person won’t, because there’s nothing directly in it for them. Saying this out loud, it’s making me realize that I can pretty much draw an equals sign between the words “civilized” and “decent”, which I suppose is why I wrote a book on how to create civilization in the first place. We can be done better too.
JS: Just to press you, a little — would you consider a hunting and gathering society a civilization if it approached the “it can be done better” question through culture, rather than technology? And what’s your take on the argument that hunting and gathering is a long-term approach to living a life with others — that it ensures environmental sustainability/stability in a way that, say, the industrial-revolution approach doesn’t?
RN: Oh, for sure! And I’m not here to say you’re not living in a civilization if you’re in a hunting-and-gathering world and doing more than just hunting and gathering, culturally. One of the core issues I had to address early on is answering this question: what is civilization? And rather than try to tease that apart and draw lines in the sand, I decided to sidestep it all and decided my guide would be to reinventing a technological civilization. That comes with pluses and minuses, of course! Heck, as soon as you invent the technology of animal husbandry, you’re bringing in all the diseases that animals carry that you only really get exposed to by close contact with animals — rabies, plague, salmonella, and more. There’s definite downsides.
And in a place and time where food is plentiful, a technological civilization is absolutely going to be a hard sell. I can imagine people responding with “Wait, you want us to labor in order to eat? You have to farm? You have to take care of animals instead of just eating one when you’re hungry?” We sometimes think that as soon as technological civilization started everyone just jumped on board because we all loved it so much, but I don’t think that was the case. And there are still a few (a very few, but still) societies on Earth that have rejected most of the things we associate with “civilization”, and I’m not going to tell you we’re right and they’re wrong.
The core idea of a technological civilization — like I said earlier, that rather than taking the Earth as it is, we can change it to something that better suits us — is an incredibly powerful one, and it can also be incredibly destructive. Depending on your view of humanity and what it’s managed to accomplish, you might think a smaller, sustainable, less ecologically impactful civilization is better for the Earth, and I’m not sure I could argue otherwise. Heck, I have a friend who believes in voluntary human extinction (where humans decide to stop having kids and grow old peacefully, with the motto being “last one out, turn off the lights”) and we’ve had some great discussions about all this stuff.
But I’m a firm believer that the greatest resource we have on Earth is human brains, and the greatest thing we can do to support those brains is to build things — like civilizations — that let more of them survive, thrive, and reach their full potential. Civilization leads to farming, which leads to more calories produced per meter of farmland than you get with hunting and gathering, which in turn leads to more healthy and creative human brains. A properly-configured civilization should let all of those human brains thrive, because you never know where genius lies.
Can civilization-building be done better than what we’ve done in our own history? Absolutely. The “narrator” of the book is often pointing out the parts where we messed up big time, and imploring the reader to do better. There’s so many opportunities for that!
I’m a firm believer that the greatest resource we have on Earth is human brains, and the greatest thing we can do to support those brains is to build things — like civilizations — that let more of them survive, thrive, and reach their full potential.
JS: Early in How to Invent Everything, spoken and written language are identified as fundamental technologies; later on, there are sections on how to innovate in visual art, with musical instruments, and in music theory; but there are no sections on oral storytelling or written literature. Do you consider storytelling/literature to be essential to civilization? Is storytelling/literature a technology?
RN: What a great question! One of the most interesting things to me is how optional a lot of the things we think are fundamental are: a lot of us structure our lives around them, but most civilizations on Earth got along just fine without computers. Heck, many of them got along just fine without the wheel. And that underlines the fact that so much of what we consider essential really isn’t, and that there’s so many ways to live your life. When it comes to building civilizations, you can pick and choose just about everything…
…except for stories.
I couldn’t find a single example of a group of humans that didn’t tell stories. There’s actually a quote in the book from Ursula K. Le Guin — when trapped in the past, you are encouraged to plagiarize it — that reads “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” That really resonated with me. As much as the book explores missed opportunities in our own history, we’ve never missed one with storytelling. The one thing we can rely on about humans is that we’ll always tell each other about ourselves through stories. So that made it one of the few things that didn’t require any sort of explanation in the book: we just do it naturally, and it’s innate!
(And while visual art and music are similar in that humans make them on their own, there’s still technologies required — for example visual perspective, instruments — to really help them reach their potential. All you need for storytelling is a voice, and if you want to write them down, well, there’s technologies in the book for that too.)
JS: What are you working on next?
RN: I’m not sure! I’m in that beautiful spot where you finish one book and you don’t know what the next book will be yet. I write a monthly comic with Marvel Comics — The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl — so that’ll continue, but as for my Next Big Book… that’s still (taking it back to time travel)… in the future.