Seeking books about resource management
January 1, 2022 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I recently realized I love books that are about managing a finite number of resources. Recommend more books that might qualify? Examples under the fold.

I was trying to articulate a certain type of book that I love, and a friend nailed it when she said what I seem to like is "resource management." I love the beginning of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when Francie talks about getting and spending her five cents. I love personal finance and frugality blogs. I love The Martian, where Mark has to conserve food and oxygen in order to not die. What other books, fiction or nonfiction, might scratch this extremely specific itch?
posted by Threeve to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Throughout many of Brandon Sanderson's books, perhaps most notably the Mistborn trilogy, magic is accumulated via various natural phenomena and/or user actions and its expenditure must be carefully regulated lest one run out mid-usage. Mistborn is particularly fun this way because the characters aren't generally supercharged so the budgeting actually matters a lot, they possess a variety of different powers each of which has its own accounting, and the use of magic involves or sometimes even relies upon possession of various physical items that need to be found/stolen/collected, and that get expended and can sometimes be recovered in part or in whole if one is thrifty.

(I am laughing about this now because I just realized that I received that trilogy as a gift from someone who works in budget analysis, and now it makes so much sense, so thank you.)
posted by teremala at 12:49 PM on January 1, 2022 [6 favorites]

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik has a lot of this, if you're okay with magic and YA.

(A lot of old-school YA and children's books are into this - so many kids in impoverished circumstances making do. Some examples off the top of my head are A Little Princess, All-of-a-Kind Family, the Little House in the Prairie books, and the Shoes books (Ballet Shoes, Skating Shoes, etc.). Also Island of the Blue Dolphins, and in general survivor books like Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson are a good bet.)
posted by trig at 1:01 PM on January 1, 2022 [7 favorites]

The Aubrey-Maturin naval novels by Patrick O'Brian might scratch this itch. There are a lot of detailed sequences of stocking the ship for a long voyage; stopping by a remote island to take on water and salt some local fauna as their naval stores run out; long periods in the doldrums; managing resources when marooned (alone; as a duo; the entire ship's company); a fair few scenes of limping into port, badly depleted, long after being given up for dead; surviving while imprisoned; and, when on land, managing a not-very-well situated small estate on short commons. There are detailed inventories! Spare masts, how many guns of what caliber and trigger type; exactly how many kegs of salt pork and beef; how much laudanum and "portable soup" the doctor needs; exactly what will be served at dinner and where sourced; and so on, and so forth. O'Brian read contemporary accounts and ship logs and loved to work these accurate details into the books.
posted by Well I never at 1:10 PM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

You might like The 100-Mile Diet.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:13 PM on January 1, 2022

Best answer: Though it operates on a grand scale, you may find Neal Stephenson's Seveneves of interest -- or at least the first 3/4 of it. Life on earth is destroyed when the moon is blown to pieces, leaving people surviving in orbit. It's a story of managing gradually dwindling everything -- fuel, shelter, people -- with no lifeline or hope of rescue to fall back on.
posted by lhauser at 1:13 PM on January 1, 2022 [7 favorites]

the Little House in the Prairie books

Especially The Long Winter!
posted by jgirl at 1:15 PM on January 1, 2022 [6 favorites]

You might conceivably be interested in The Defence of Duffer's Drift, which is sort of the military tactics equivalent of this, although I should mention there is the kind of racism/imperialism you would expect from a British army thing from 1904.
posted by inkyz at 1:16 PM on January 1, 2022

Best answer: John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids [1962] is all about prioritising what you can fit in a 5-tonne truck when you back it up to the loading dock of the Army and Navy Stores after Armageddon. Cases of tinned beans useless without a can-opener; a whet-stone as well as knives; a few triffid-top-loppers . . .
As noted above by trig: the beginning of Robinson Crusoe is similar as he loots the wreck of his ship for moveable kit to raft ashore. A barrel of nails, iirc.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:19 PM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One of my favorite parts about “Free Land” by Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder) is the constant mentioning of what things cost, and how they earn money to try to pay for those things. (Any LIW fan will recognize most if not all of the anecdotes in the book.)
posted by Melismata at 1:23 PM on January 1, 2022

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt scratches this itch.
posted by Melismata at 1:24 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love reading about this topic also, and I was lucky enough back in the day to acquire How to Live on Nothing by Joan Shortney, first published in 1971. It's a genuine self-help book, but I take it out periodically to reread it because it is just so well-written, with lots of little anecdotes about colorful characters, even though much of the advice is no longer really usable.
posted by maggiemaggie at 1:25 PM on January 1, 2022

Richard Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy.”
posted by Melismata at 1:27 PM on January 1, 2022

Best answer: I love this kind of stuff too!

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman about managing one's time and energy for what matters most in life.

Castle of Water is a great "lost at sea" survival story with lots of details in this vein beyond the usual food and shelter stuff. One character figures out how to make his own saline in order to extend the life of his only remaining pair of contact lenses.
posted by anderjen at 1:30 PM on January 1, 2022

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is YA, and a great read at any age.
posted by cyndigo at 1:43 PM on January 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Ian McGuire's The North Water involves a fair bit of shipboard inventory management, and some...stranding issues requiring same.

The primary tension in Waubgeshig Rice's Moon of the Crusted Snow is resource scarcity and management.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:51 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Larry Niven's Ringworld is pretty similar. Things start going south pretty quickly and the characters are constantly improvising around the loss of various assets.
posted by equalpants at 1:55 PM on January 1, 2022

Elinor Ostrum’s Governing the Commons is about how we succeed or fail to manage resources together. The beginning and end chapters are a bit theoretical but the middle chapters have a bunch of cool case studies.
posted by congen at 1:59 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The primary tension in Waubgeshig Rice's Moon of the Crusted Snow is resource scarcity and management.

I loved this book. There are a few others that can be similar. If you liked the Martian, Weir's book Project Hail Mary would probably be up your alley. I also finished a book called The Dog Stars which is all about this kind of thing, a post-pandemic world where very few people are left alive and different people set up teeny enclaves.
posted by jessamyn at 2:28 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kate Christensen's most recent novel The Last Cruise has as one of its three major plot threads the provisioning, storing, preparing, and rationing the food for a luxury ocean liner voyage. Christensen was a chef and is great at writing the practical and sensual realities of working in a commercial kitchen. And I worked on a ocean liner and can attest that the logistics of how a ship like that functions are spot-on.
posted by minervous at 2:48 PM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. Lots of calculations (and arguments!) in there about terraforming and how they will first, survive, and later, thrive, on Mars. In that respect I guess it's like The Martian, but otherwise they're very different; the Mars Trilogy is much more about the interpersonal and geopolitical dynamics of colonising communities.
posted by happyfrog at 2:50 PM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

A few more that are good in the "sort of apocalypse" vein

- The Apocalypse Seven by Gene Doucette - something happened and now there are maybe only seven people left in the world.
- The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird - another plague book, this one kills 90% of men, how does that change the way society functions?
- Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan - something happens and the internet and all internet-related things don't work anymore, how do we recreate society?
posted by jessamyn at 3:43 PM on January 1, 2022

On the nonfiction side, The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt is a classic in operations management, written in a narrative style. It's a piece about maximizing production given limited resources, incorporating quantitative thinking.

*Edit: Upon reflection, the book might be categorized as technical fiction...
posted by Last_wave_by at 3:48 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would heartily second Project Hail Mary - one of my more enjoyable read last year. It's the Martian but different, and quite charming.

Perhaps the Hatchet books? YA adventure stories - woodlore / survival. I read them as a child so don't have a sense of whether they hold up for an adult reader but they certainly tick the making-use-of-limited-resources box.

The Flight of the Phoenix might scratch the itch? But probably not as good if you've seen the film adaptation and know the plot already.
posted by colin.jaquiery at 3:57 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Operations Research, the branch of mathematical sciences most closely aligned to your interests, might have an interesting history. A dizzying selection of possible reads is here.
posted by adekllny at 4:03 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

For non-fiction, I just finished reading "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big" by Scott Adams. Basically it's a story of his life, which appears (to me) to have been more of a "random walk" than mine even. Just as one example he says to avoid selling your time, since it is an extremely scarce resource and limits your up side potential (see the tie in to resource management?)

For fantasy fiction, there is the "The Inheritance Cycle" by Christopher Paolini. Even someone who has their own dragon and can draw on magic has limitations.
posted by forthright at 4:17 PM on January 1, 2022

My Side of the Mountain is a middle grade novel about a boy living in the woods.

I found the Clan of the Cave Bear series (for all its many flaws) to be very satisfying in that respect.

Seconding A Deadly Education from above.

Another post-apocalypse YA that involves a lot of counting your foodstuffs is Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:55 PM on January 1, 2022

If you don't mind reading a web serial, Delve is sort of like "RPG resource management in real life." A guy finds himself in a world governed by game-like rules down to the status screen, HP and mana, skills and so on, and sets about min-maxing like crazy with all the math worked out to, for example, maximize the amount of utility he gets out of every MP or whatever. It's a pretty fun, light read and ongoing.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:30 PM on January 1, 2022

Best answer: You might like the book on frugality, The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. The link is all three books packaged together.

The author wanted to live in a large farm house and have an equally large family and knew that she had to save a lot of money.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:53 AM on January 2, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks all! I marked a bunch as best answer that I plan to start with (I laughed when the first suggestion was Brandon Sanderson; my best friends have been trying to get me to read him for years) but I'll definitely be coming back to this thread. Feel free to add more suggestions, I'll check back!

(And I did indeed love the first 3/4 of Seveneves. Same for Project Hail Mary!)
posted by Threeve at 10:49 AM on January 2, 2022

How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher is about how to feed yourself and your family on WWII rationing. She revised it in 1951 and subsequent editions have her charming commentary and additions in brackets throughout so you can see both the original and her thoughts a decade later.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:05 AM on January 3, 2022

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