Well, folks, Christmas is over, and so is 2018 — almost. Below are the final comments or reviews for 2018: Dreamland and Rocket Girls, two very different histories. One is inspiring, the other….so very not.
First up, Rocket Girls! Call to mind the space race, and very likely the people who come to mind are German scientists and lantern-jawed American airmen, the right-stuff hotshots who explored beyond the atmosphere. The story of American rocketry begins before the sixties, however, and from the beginning it involved both sexes. In Rocket Girls we visit the early days of rocketry, even during World War 2. This is really a history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of its inception and early work, as told through serial biographies. Well over a dozen women’s contributions are chronicled here, and they include a Chinese dissident and the first African-American hired to a technical position at the JPL. Although the women’s work in computing trajectories, and working out by hand how different materials and propellant mixes might chance results is increasingly supplanted by IBM’s computers, I really enjoyed the extensive on-the-ground history of the JPL. The amount of work that went into every launch — of everything from antiaircraft missiles to probe launches — is awe-inspiring, and the July lunar landing seems even more incredible.
Not quite as uplifting but lamentably important is Dreamland, a history of the opiod crises in America. The historical narrative considers two stories that converge into one. The first is the rise of a black tar heroin distribution network in the United States, in which a small village in Mexico revolutionized drug marketing to make buying safe, easy, and satisfying – at least until the high wore off. The second story is the rise of prescription opiods in the United States, as aggressive marketing to local general practitioner wore down decades of reluctant to freely prescribe strong pain medications for fear of addiction. Spurred by a small study whose import was amplified far beyond reality to think that opiods could never become addictive so long as they were being used for physical pain, optimistic physicians and ambitious pharmaceuticals undermined the previously existing framework for addressing pain and replace it with it with pills. Use pills, and if they don’t work, use more pills. When medical patients became addicts and their doctors became concerned, the addicts were able to get their fix from the new heroin distributors, the “Xalisco Boys” as the author calls them. All they had to do was call a number and meet a car at a given location, and they were in business. The prescription pills also became big business in themselves on the black market, creating pill mills so openly phoney that they operated out of portable trailers and subscribed OxyContin to lines of hundreds. The two narratives interlace together incredibly well, and as sad a history as this is, it bears considering. There’s also a bit of philosophy in the title and the deliery; Quinones opens with an attractive look at an Ohio town’s pool and community center, a place called Dreamland, where the people of the town came together and shared their lives — as children they played in the pool, as teens they necked in the high grass, and as adults they came with their kids to experience the wading pool all over again. But then another dreamland, a private one where people dropped out of life and hid themselves in their rooms, lost in their own drug-addled minds, took over. Although the destruction of that Ohio town’s park had more to do with economics than drugs, it’s a very effective image.
That wraps 2018 up; later this week I’ll do a best-of-posting and share some data pie. I’ve got a couple of books at the ready, but don’t imagine I’ll be finishing either one up before tonight. Because of another outburst of spam (all in Arabic or Farsi, which is…interesting.), I’ve had to impose moderation, but I’ll check on a daily basis, and this explosion of nonsense ever ebbs I’ll turn the moderation off.