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Courtesy of the artist, author photo by Connie Tsang

You're a time traveler. Your time machine broke and you're trapped in the past. There's no way you're getting back to the future, but you can invent a new one.

That's the premise of How to Invent Everything, the new book from Ryan North, best known for Dinosaur Comics and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. The book (illustrated by Portland cartoonist Lucy Bellwood) presents itself as a guide for the lost time traveler, and guides an ordinary person through how to re-create civilization. It's a guide to domesticating cows, inventing radio, and figuring out the basics of logic.

North's premise might sound dry, as he's basically writing an encyclopedia. However, he's talented and smart enough to make essentially any topic entertaining. Brief, funny what-if conversations are at the core of Dinosaur Comics. North proves that he doesn't need to speak through a T-Rex and a Utahraptor to make pronouncements about the nature of electricity funny.

That's also not the most enjoyable aspect of How to Invent Everything. North's pseudo-encyclopedia provides perspective, and far-reaching thousand-year long view is actually a relief right now. Our moment sucks. The news is bad, the people in power are bad, and it's very easy to think that humanity is defined by its worst impulses and most glaring ignorance.

How to Invent Everything, though, is a reminder that humanity is capable of making significant, real progress, albeit slowly. We can be better. North's vision of history is one of ingenuity and progress in the best way possible. He doesn't fall into the easy trap of painting history as an inevitable march of progress fueled by genius inventors and leaders. Instead, he gives us a vision of humans as problem-solving creatures.

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courtesy of the artist, illustration by lucy bellwood

We're lazy, so we make machines work for us. We don't want to go out to listen to music, so we invent radio. We would rather spend time on mental labor rather than physical labor, so computers are a thing now. And so on. In the world according to North, civilization is built out of these short-cuts and workarounds. You solve enough problems, eventually you get the modern world.

It's a helpful reminder that humans are, in fact, capable of improving the world around them, and that given enough time pretty much anyone can learn trigonometry or figure out how a trumpet works. The news is full of despair and our leaders are terrible, but North is here to tell us that we've been better, and we can be better. We can turn wolves into dogs. We can figure out longitude. Sometimes we fuck up and our time machines break, but at the end of the day we can invent everything.