Ryan North is committed. That’s what’s kept him chipping away at the same webcomic, , since 2003. For fifteen years, North has used the exact same art every day, only changing its script. Now, North is committing again to an extremely specific idea: an instruction guide to rebuilding civilization for anyone with the misfortune of getting stuck in a broken time machine. His new book, , is tackling questions he’s had since he was a kid, questions he got from Marty McFly.
“I saw Back to the Future when I was six years old, and ever since then I’ve been vaguely worried about how useless I would be if I went back in time,” North told Seniorhelpline in an interview.
To his credit, he’s already tried working through this childhood anxiety on this particular issue: in 2012, he used his Dinosaur Comics store to sell a shirt that offered its utility in its name: the shirt. That satisfied his need for a little while. But North is a stubbornly enthusiastic perfectionist, at least when it comes to time travel.
“I kept thinking, there might be more to time travel than you can put on a t-shirt.” One thing led to another and he became convinced he could write a 450-page book on how to invent pretty much everything.
While it's ostensibly an instruction manual, the book's fiction is nested several levels deep. How to Invent Everything is a non-fiction book in a sci-fi framework, imaging a world of mostly peaceful time travel, with each leap into the past creating its own parallel universe that won’t disrupt our main timeline. “So it becomes this almost holodeck, except its real,” North says. "It’s tourism.”
North’s book presents itself as an emergency guide for when that tourism goes wrong, for when the time machine breaks and the user is stranded in the past.
“There’s a bad version of this book that’s just a joke,” North says. “Not that much real information, there’s not much science. What I wanted the book to be was real science, real information, you could actually invent things from knowing this stuff. By the end, you could credibly create a technological civilization.”
The book’s subjects are varied. They range from short-term projects like making bricks, to long-term projects like dog domestication. ”With selective breeding, you could get a dog in like 30 years, or at least a very dog-like wolf," North says. “And think of how great it would be to have a dog after wanting one for 30 years.”
At points, North was nervous that his realistic approach to the manual might lead to a dull and boring tome. "There were some sections I was really worried about because I was worried they would be super boring," he admits. "Mining, smelters, forages, and farming. I kept thinking, oh this is boring no one will care about this, I didn’t particularly care about it. But after reading about it, I was like, actually this is fascinating! The farming one especially. I thought it would be the dullest stuff, but there’s such interesting stuff—just how long it took us to figure out the basics of farming, like crop rotation. You know, if you plant the same food, you’ll eventually deplete the soil and it will die."
"And it took us thousands of years to figure out," he adds. "Something we can explain in a sentence now."
If there's a recurring theme in How To Invent Everything, it's that nothing was built in a day, even if it can now be explained in a sentence. As he writes in the book ():
If you draw a line between when humans had the technological perquisites (fire and the drop spindle needed for fabric creation) and the time when they finally took flight for the first time, that line covers almost ten thousand years. Hot-air balloons aren't like spaceflight or time travel, technologies that require many members of a civilization to work together to produce them. The original hot-air balloons were invented by two bored brothers out of a burlap sack.
While a little harsh towards the Montgolfier Brothers, the passage is textbook North—dry but not overly, and chock full of information. It's a quality that's served him well in his various writings, from Dinosaur Comics to the simultaneously surreal and sweet Adventure Time and Squirrel Girl comics.
"There aren’t too many science books that take the perspective that humans screwed up and could have done better," North says. "The idea that we could have done this but didn’t is interesting. That we could have invented buttons, or hot air balloons, and didn’t until finally someone breaks through."
Now that the manual is finished, North is considering working backwards to flesh out the sci-fi world it exists in. "Having just written the non-fictional version of this, maybe it's time to write a fictional version of it," he says, mulling the idea over. In the meantime, the manual stands well on its own, even if you'll never set foot in a time machine.