Randy Shilts (1987)
It’s hard to sum-up this book: part history, part in-depth analysis of gay society in the 1980’s, part polemic against the Reagan administration. Randy Shilts lived through it (and eventually succumbed himself), and he wonderfully captures the frustration, the fear, and the final sense of creeping inevitability as more and more in the core social circle fall away.
It’s also a fascinating study of how governments listen (or not) to their own scientists, as well as of the political in-fighting between science groups and the ways in which reality is so often shaped by the perceptions of those reviewing the evidence: obvious in hindsight, perhaps excusably resisted at least in the early stages. There are plenty of examples of more recent “epidemics” that actually were not as devastating as they were at first warned to be (SARS and nvCJD spring to mind) – which isn’t to excuse the quite despicable inaction later when things became clear. There’s a lot here to be learned about how to respond to news of impending devastation.
One advantage of writing this review late is that I can include recent events: the exoneration of one of the main villains of the piece, Gaetan Dugas, who was reviled as “patient zero”, deliberately spreading the epidemic more rapidly and widely. It turns out that, whatever Dugas’ actions, they didn’t give rise to as much secondary infection as was thought when Shilts wrote his book, and just goes to show how science is always a provisional activity.
Finished Thursday 4 August, 2016.
(Originally published on Goodreads.)