“Boston, 1868. The Civil War may be over but a new war has begun, one between the past and the present, tradition and technology. On a former marshy wasteland, the daring Massachusetts Institute of Technology is rising, its mission to harness science for the benefit of all and to open the doors of opportunity to everyone of merit. But in Boston Harbor a fiery cataclysm throws commerce into chaos, as ships’ instruments spin inexplicably out of control. Soon after, another mysterious catastrophe devastates the heart of the city. Is it sabotage by scientific means or Nature revolting against man’s attempt to control it?
The shocking disasters cast a pall over M.I.T. and provoke assaults from all sides — rival Harvard, labor unions, and a sensationalistic press. With their first graduation and the very survival of their groundbreaking college now in doubt, a band of the Institute’s best and brightest students secretly come together to save innocent lives and track down the truth, armed with ingenuity and their unique scientific training.
Led by “charity scholar” Marcus Mansfield, a quiet Civil War veteran and one-time machinist struggling to find his footing in rarefied Boston society, the group is rounded out by irrepressible Robert Richards, the bluest of Beacon Hill bluebloods; Edwin Hoyt, class genius; and brilliant freshman Ellen Swallow, the Institute’s lone, ostracized female student. Working against their small secret society, from within and without, are the arrayed forces of a stratified culture determined to resist change at all costs and a dark mastermind bent on the utter destruction of the city.”
Thoughts: Reading The Technologists by Matthew Pearl is a great reminder why cross-genre novels are popular these days. The appeal of a novel that is more than a mystery, more than a thriller, and more than a work of historical fiction creates a fairly broad reader base. Not only that, but it creates a much more satisfyingly intricate and robust story. The Technologists is definitely that. With its commentary of class and gender distinctions, presentation of historical fact merged with intriguing fiction, and a killer mystery, the complexity of the scientific sections is offset by its sympathetic characters and thought-provoking descriptions of Bostonian societal norms, creating a novel that will attract a wide swath of readers and more importantly, keep their interest.
With a novel written about the first students at MIT and titled The Technologists, one knows immediately upon picking it up that it is going to be heavily laden with scientific discussions and events. Science and technology in any novel can be tricky to write, as a reader needs to be able to understand the science mentioned and, in the case of science fiction, needs to be able to believe the possibilities of such technology. Thankfully, Mr. Pearl is up to the challenge. Most of the scientific descriptions involve issues that are considered common knowledge today, or at least are mentioned in most high school chemistry, geography, and physics classes. For those discussions that may be a little more complicated, Mr. Pearl uses the characters to explain the science in a fashion that is informative without being condescending. In addition, for a reader who may be struggling with some of the science behind the action, the nods to scientific discoveries that are common knowledge today but were in their infancy at the time in the novel, e.g. food science, bacteriology, robotics, create light-hearted moments of superiority. The Technologists allows the reader to remember just how far the world of science has come in a relatively short time span.
What does come as a surprise when reading The Technologists is the antagonism between Harvard and MIT. This is one area in which Mr. Pearl tried not to stray from fact as much as possible, and it is fascinating to discover how patronizing and smug the Harvard students and faculty were towards the fledgling college. For a city, nay a country, that prides itself on being equal opportunity for all, even though it struggles in the execution, the divide between the haves – those able to afford college – and the have-nots – those forced to work for a living – was almost insurmountable. Although modern readers may expect such a divide due to money and the overall cost of receiving any sort of post-secondary education, the astonishment in The Technologists comes at the attitudes. Those not considered part of “society” were considered inferior and therefore not acceptable material for any college or university, and heaven help the poor soul who attempted to rise above their position. It is a shocking and disturbing display of the fundamental attitudinal differences between the “one percenters” and the rest of society. It also creates an unprecedented amount of empathy for the poor students at MIT who faced ridicule, lack of actual diplomas, and uncertain futures to pave the way for a new type of education.
The overall story of The Technologists is full of the most subtle twists and turns. Just when a reader thinks the story is going in one direction, the plot twists into a new one. This allows the resolution of the mystery to remain shrouded, providing a surprising and satisfying ending to the story. Mr. Pearl ladens his plot twists with well-described details and thoughtful insight into his characters. The fact that a majority of the students involved were either real or are based on actual students allows Mr. Pearl to create fairly three-dimensional characters that do much to enhance the overall story. Through the requisite descriptions and scientific discussions, Mr. Pearl is able to maintain decent pacing, as there are only a few moments where the story bogs down in the details. Thankfully, he writes himself out of such danger traps to create a story that is fairly fast-paced with a fine balance between attention to detail and action.
The Technologists is a fun romp through Boston after the Civil War at a time where science was advancing in unprecedented leaps and bounds. Not only is it a thrilling mystery, it also provides readers with a fascinating look at the issues facing the creation of one of the most respected colleges today. While much of the action is fictional, Mr. Pearl’s notes provide an excellent breakdown of the fictional liberties he took versus the historical details he kept pure and unadulterated. Even though the blend of fact and fiction is not necessarily seamless due to the nature of the fictional pieces, the accurate factual events create a more robust and believable story. The end result is a creative, engaging, and informative historical technological mystery.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to LibraryThing’s Early Reader Program for my review copy!