The ultimate current paean to both the kitsch and grandeur of Americana is the Fallout video game franchise, which celebrates a certain cultural moment – the late ’50s – to the point of hyperbole. Central to the franchise’s obsession with US culture in the deepest and most hysteric throes of the Cold War are missiles, rockets and airborne ordnance of every type. Missiles clutter the screen when playing the game and are foundational to the series’ lore. It would not be a mischaracterization to suggest that Fallout sees the missile as the cultural cornerstone of the United States; ours is a culture that glorifies enormous pointy things loaded with dynamite or thermonuclear devices that can fly across the world delivering fiery death and destruction.

A Girl’s Guide to Missiles provides further evidence that maybe the Fallout franchise is on to something. The book is a memoir on growing up in the very shadows (and “shadows” here takes on multiple meanings) of the US obsession with missiles.

Author Karen Piper moved as a child with her family from Seattle to China Lake, California, in the early ’70s so that her father could work on the odd little naval base there in the middle of the Mojave Desert. China Lake was a missile research, manufacturing and testing facility conjured out of the dust during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. Through today, it has continued in this legacy of producing instruments of mass death. Piper’s entire family – including her father, mother, sister, brother-in-law and even her teenaged self – all worked on the base in various guises. A Girl’s Guide to Missiles is largely a reflection on what it means to come of age at a secret (or even top-secret) weapons-making facility, but is even more a meditation on what it means to live in a country besotted with making ever more elaborate means of ending human life.

The book is definitely most captivating in the chapters involving China Lake directly. Piper quite literally has a behind-the-scenes, insider view of much that went on at the base in the Nixon, Carter and Reagan years, and that sort of perspective is both valuable and interesting. For instance, there are insinuations that military officials continued producing Sidewinder missiles (Piper’s father’s project) even though they knew they did not really work very well, leading to bad tidings for numerous US airmen in Vietnam. But Piper never had access to this sort of high-level information, so such conspiracies are only hinted at. No, where A Girl’s Guide to Missiles truly shines is in demonstrating the sort of myopic single-mindedness that plagues projects such as the China Lake naval facility. For instance, a perfectly ordinary desert flash flood destroyed crucial records, damaged equipment and threatened the safety of base staff one summer when Piper worked there. This is an elite research center, luring hundreds of the most educated scientific minds in the world and yet no one had accounted for the possibility that it might rain!

A Girl’s Guide to Missiles often strays from China Lake, however, and these chapters never quite sing like those focused on the naval base. Piper details the horrific “schooling” she received as a child, when her parents – whom she never takes to task even though their hyper-fundamentalist Baptist beliefs hung like a specter over her childhood – shunted her off to a private academy trotting out a curriculum that teaches creationism and biblical literalism. These chapters definitely support the book’s thesis that ours is a society too singularly focused on missiles, as even her parents – professional research scientists! – could not be bothered to see that their daughters learned proper science. But these chapters drag, as do most of those which discuss Piper’s awakening to sex, drugs and rock and roll in the late ’80s and her graduate studies at the University of Oregon. These sections remain interesting and are necessary for the book’s overall argument, so they are only ever moderately annoying rather than ruining the book.

The US is a missile culture. Most people in my parents’ generation – my parents included – can likely name more missile types (Tomahawk, Sidewinder, cruise, ICBM and on and on) and types of military aircraft (F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, for instance) than they can foreign countries outside Europe. In that stage of Americana, people looked up, rather than out. The insights and reflections shared in Karen Piper’s A Girl’s Guide to Missiles provide an explanation – both culturally and in terms of the political economics of missile-making – of why that is the case.

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