For those of you who like your reading beefy, in other words more than four hundred pages, and likewise find Matthew Pearl’s take on mystery and history captivating, you are going to like The Technologists. Pearl has become a master of the historical thriller as evidenced by The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens. The Technologists takes us back to 1868 Boston in a science thriller that fits nicely in today’s culture of questioning science, vis-a-vis global warming.`
In true thriller style, The Technologists begins with two near-cataclysmic events. Late one night, for no clear reason, all the instruments of ships entering Boston harbor begin to malfunction, causing shipwrecks and flaming death and destruction. Not long after, a second equally inexplicable event occurs in the very center of Boston’s world of commerce, with explosions of melting glass. Speculation among the city’s industrial leaders and its police runs rampant. Is it the work of saboteurs, or has the intrusion of science into the 19th century finally caused God to strike back?
Reminiscent of Pearl’s earlier work, The Dante Club, his latest novel also involves one of America’s most prestigious universities, M.I.T. The story takes place just as the University prepares for its first commencement. M.I.T. is a center of learning whose very existence has been met with opposition not only from backers of Harvard, the long-touted paragon of a gentleman’s education, but also from men of the cloth who believe the world of science opposes God, and laborers who fear the new world of technology will put them out of work. A most diverse group of M.I.T. students band together to prove by scientific methods (and a fair amount of good old sleuthing) that the blame for the disasters is not science or technology, but a crazed individual with his own agenda.
Pearl’s unearthing of M.I.T.’s background is a feast for history buffs. Every reader on the alert for smart, engaging female characters will cheer for M.I.T.’s first female student, Ellen Swallow. His characters run the gamut from a common machinist Civil War veteran, to the son of a wealthy industrialist. If wealth and prestige separate them, they are equally drawn to each other by their belief in science and its offspring, technology. Mens et Manus (Mind and Hand) is M.I.T.’s motto and, depending on who is reading it, the words represent hope for the future or fear for that same future.
Pearl does not shortchange the reader on some very fast-paced action, unexpected twists, and even an historically based romance. But what most intrigues me is that 144 years after M.I.T.’s founders fought for the right to open its doors to men and women, many of the same nay-saying voices of the past continue to be heard. Are the fears of skilled laborers of the 19th century so different from those of the 20th and 21st century? Today’s men and women of the cloth continue to despair of Darwin and would close down certain avenues of study. Pearl’s historical thriller seems not limited to history. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club 2006; The Poe Shadow 2007; The Last Dickens 2009; The Professor’s Assassin 2011(Short Story) Kindle.