Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North
Nonfiction: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North
According to the foreword of this book, Ryan North did not write it. He found it, encased in preCambrian rock. He merely transcribed it. It looks to be a companion journal to the FC3000™ Time Machine, in the unlikely (and certainly not legally liable) circumstance of its failure, stranding the renter sometime in the deep past. Unfortunately, How to Invent Everything does not actually tell you how to invent the time machine itself–presumably for patent reasons. It does, however, provide a tongue-in-cheek guide to creating civilization from scratch whenever you find yourself. (It does help, though, to have other humans available when trying to create a society.)
North’s tone is breezy and conversational. How to Invent Everything is heavily footnoted and endnoted. The footnotes are often quite humorous, and are worth reading. The endnotes provide actual research and additional resources (which are not really useful if you are stuck in a time period before they were written, but they are provided just in case). Don’t let the tone of the book fool you: this is a well-documented and well-researched book that breaks down the pieces of civilization and modernity and gives at least a basic framework for replacing them.
The longest chapter by far, essentially a book within the book, is chapter 10: Common Human Complaints that Can Be Solved by Technology. (Reviewer’s interpretation: humans complain a lot which is why the chapter is so long.) In this chapter North gives basic details on inventing a number of technologies that would be extremely useful: water purification, plows, prophylactics, batteries, airplanes, and many, many more. Other chapters give insights into useful plants and animals, farming, basic nutrition, developing language, first aid, music, and art. The chapter on music even contains some public domain music that you can “invent” yourself and take credit for, including that timeless classic that plays during Tetris.
The appendices include a number of things that would be very handy for any civilization just starting out–though as he points out, many of these things actually did not develop until hundreds or thousands of years after they could have been discovered or developed. These include the periodic table, useful chemicals and how to make them, trigonometric tables, helpful numbers (e.g. pi), and the pitches of musical notes. The technology tree is fascinating–I never would have suspected that the invention of paper led directly to the stethoscope (he covers this in the book as well).
All in all, this is an amusing and quirky look at how the modern world came to be. He constantly pokes fun at the vagaries of invention: buttons, for example, were around for hundreds of years as decorative items before anyone thought of using them as fasteners. Some things were invented or discovered, then lost, then reinvented or rediscovered centuries later. Forceps, used to help reposition babies for birth, were kept secret for 150 years by a family of doctors who wanted to corner the market on them!
Somehow, despite everything, we’ve managed to get to this point in technology and communication–and apparently at some future point we will have access to a time machine and arguably could do the whole thing over again and hopefully better. If so, Ryan North’s “find” will be of immeasurable value. Until then, it is a fun and fascinating look at the building blocks of civilization.
If, all of a sudden, book reviews on Scintilla end and your milk is “marvinized” instead of “pasteurized,” you’ll know that I brought this book along with me using the FC3000™ Time Machine, and I used it. I hope you also enjoy “Marvin’s” Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. It should be a classic!