Off the Bookshelf: The Past Through Tomorrow, The Goal, The Light Brigade

I went Old School with the first two books on my list on my summer reading list: Robert Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow is a collection of his “Future History” short stories, novellas, and novels written in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a time when the future was atomic, women working in space was a radical idea, and the moonshot itself was science fiction. The Goal, written in 1984 by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, is a seminal novel about process improvement in the Age of Reagan and the inspiration from the DevOps novel, The Phoenix Project.

The pairing made for a throwback vibe while I read one book and listened to the other. Pulling my mindset back into the present was The Light Brigade, a time travel/military SF novel reminiscent of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War

The Past Through Tomorrow

Robert Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow was a reading recommendation by a friend, who knew I liked science fiction and Heinlein’s work. It’s worth reading, but with 900 pages and small text, it took longer to get through than I expected.

Written in the 1940s, which was fairly early in Heinlein’s career, the book looks at humanity’s haphazard technological evolution over centuries’ worth of time. As I alluded to earlier, the book starts off heavily inspired by the then-thrilling era of atomic energy. Written before humanity went to the moon – heck, written before humans went into space! – the series of connected short stories anticipate moon colonies, orbital power plants, cities that roll along roads, and a dark age of religious intolerance.

The entire series has a very 1940s vibe to it:

  • Everyone smokes. In board rooms. On factory floors. In spaceships. In Lunar cities.
  • Print is still king, as are newspapers.
  • Videophones are omnipresent but there’s no artificial intelligence.
  • Mars has intelligent, if laid back, life of its own and Venus isn’t a metal-melting hell hole.

Heinlein’s future history was the Marvel Universe of its day, and the sort of world-building I always enjoyed though if I’m being honest, Isaac Asimov did it better with his Foundation series.

Heinlein can get a little too clever for his own good — some of his characters magically know the answer to the problems they face — but the character-driven pieces that show why he’s a grandmaster (see “Ordeal in Space” and “The Long Watch”)

It’s a doubling weird experience, reading this collection. On the one hand, there’s Heinlen’s vision of a future that could have been (and was not). And there are my own echoes of memory from having read some of these stories before. “The Roads Must Roll” and “The Green Hills of Earth” are tales I half-remember from my childhood. I appreciated the chance to revisit them.

The Goal

Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s 1980s-era novel about LEAN manufacturing and process improvement is more likely to show up as part of an MBA program than a summer reading list. How the heck did it end up on mine? In short, it’s because of The Phoenix Project. The novel about DevOps and its role in saving a fictional car parts company was heavily inspired by The Goal.

The basic setup (the company is overwhelmed by inefficient processes, a protagonist is promoted and given a few months to solve the problem, a mentor figure steps in to get them asking the right questions) is the same, though The Phoenix Project is about an IT department, and The Goal is about traditional US manufacturing.

In both cases, Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints — in which businesses processes are limited by bottlenecks which must be mastered and understood — plays a crucial role. The idea is that the constraint – aka the bottleneck – is what sets the pace for a process. Any improvements that you make to the process that don’t help or manage the constraint are wasted effort.

For example, you’re 3D printing some sort of cool, geeky widget. You can only print so many of those widgets an hour — and that’s your constraint. If your goal is to sell more widgets – and you’ve maxed out your printer – improving the online ordering form isn’t going to help because it will just result in more product orders you can’t fulfill. Making improvements to the process after the printer – say more efficient shipping – will only leave that process starved for product that the printer can’t provide.

A practical example in our day to day lives is multitasking. In truth, humans can’t actually multi-task. Even the very best multitaskers still can only work on one thing at a time though they may trick themselves into thinking they can do two things simultaneously. In truth, the more things you work on, the longer it takes to get things done. Any one of those things may take only 30 minutes to complete, but if you’ve got dozens of things you’re touching every hour, it will take weeks to get anything done (if ever)

The audiobook, which I listened to, is more of an audio drama, with different voice actors playing the different roles (but the narrative and descriptive text remaining). It’s a good read for anyone interested in process improvement, and a must-read for folks who enjoyed The Phoenix Project or are trying to implement DevOps.

The Light Brigade

Jumping to the near future and beyond is Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, in which the soldiers of Earth-based mega corporations are transformed into light and sent to fight battles around the globe and the solar system.

The protagonist joins the corporation military in order to become a citizen. Shortly after joining up, they find themselves experiencing time out of order. Everyone else continues to experience time linearly and our hero must figure out if they’re going insane, or if time truly is scrambled.

I say “they” because the protagonist’s gender is unclear. The book is told from the first-person perspective and the protagonist has sexual partners of both genders. The lack of a gendered hero reinforces the future state of the novel’s society and represents a break from the overly masculine narratives that dominate military science fiction.

The book’s structure and emphasis on neverending war are reminiscent of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, in which the hero fights in a decades-long interstellar war that – thanks to time dilation – causes centuries to pass on Earth. The disjointed temporal perspective reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, while the service-guarantees-corporate-citizenship setup can’t help but call to mind Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (even though the politics of this book are lightyears from those of Heinlein’s novel).

Speaking of politics, the book takes a simplistic “capitalists are bad, socialists are good” line in with its megacorps, which are standard cyberpunk caricatures, and its noble, egalitarian socialist Martians (there could be another nod to Heinlein there, specifically the aloof, philosophical Martians of Strange in a Strange Land, but I doubt it).

That said, at the end of the day I wasn’t overly caught up in the politics (even though the megacorps as described sounded more like a fallen socialist regime than a capitalist one). The story is the thing, and Hurley does a great job of throwing her protagonist – and us – through time.

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Cover art from The Light Brigade. Credit: Saga Press

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