In Boston, 1868, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is preparing to graduate its first ever class of seniors. The esteemed MIT of 2012 is not the same institution of 1868. In 1868 MIT is struggling to prove its worth next to the time-honored traditions of Harvard and the taboos connected with "technology." The unions are opposed to "Tech" because they fear the resulting loss of jobs if engineers, chemists, physicists, architects discover new and efficient ways to do the work physical labor has always provided. The traditionalists of Harvard see Tech as unworthy because of the lack of humanities and lack of God. And as is human nature, everyone fears what is new and unknown. So the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has to prove itself at every turn.
In the midst of MIT's struggles for recognition, a catastrophe sieges the Boston harbor. On a fog-filled night, ships coming into and going out of the harbor suddenly find their compasses have all gone haywire, spinning bizarrely out of control. The result is massive destruction as ships crash into each other and the piers. At first it is written off as a freak of nature phenomenon. But when that event is followed up by an incredible melting of glass throughout the business district, a police investigation sets out to uncover what or who is causing all the mayhem. The Boston Police Department opt to recruit the head of Harvard's science department in their investigation, and the Board at Tech decides to stay completely out of the case to avoid any bad publicity. But a group of Tech seniors and the first female Tech student - dubbing themselves "The Technologists" - decide they have to disregard the mandate and probe into these strange and devastating events. The future of MIT could depend on their success, but someone is determined to stop them one way or another.
THE TECHNOLOGISTS embodies all the characteristics of great historical fiction as well as great thriller writing. The authenticity of the time period comes through in the setting as well as mannerisms of the characters. The strength of the research is evident in the detail, while still leaving enough to the fictional plot.
The storyline includes several well placed twists, and despite its almost 470 pages, the pace is swift and the plot is tight. As Pearl adroitly blends the historical novel with the thriller, so does he blend themes of man and nature. He challenges perceptions in much the same way MIT did at its birth:
"That is technology - our way to become closer to being like the animals."
"I believe the scientific arts represent the mind of God better than any other human endeavor."
And most poignantly, Pearl shows the double-edged sword of technology. Through the tragedies of Boston as well as flashbacks to the Civil War, he exposes the evils that are equally possible.
The characters are the true gems of this novel, however. Pearl's "Technologists" each have their own role, blending unique qualities with some stereotypes. But before you jump to conclusions about my use of the word stereotypes, let me further expound that the blending makes the characters rich, humorous and convincing. His inclusion of Miss Ellen Swallow is especially significant. Swallow is brilliantly depicted, but she also serves to reflect the ingenuity of MIT at the time as well as adding a vital element to the dynamics of the relationships among the "Technologists."
THE TECHNOLOGISTS wasn't written, it was crafted - and beautifully so. Like the architects and the engineers he writes about, Matthew Pearl constructed a treasure. This is a novel to re-read at least several times to absorb all the layers and subtleties. THE TECHNOLOGISTS is enlightening, it's entertaining and it's story-telling at its best.
THE TECHNOLOGISTS is available now in hardcover (ISBN: 9781400066575) from Random House and for my audiobook fans, it's is also available in unabridged audio (ISBN: 9780739344309) from Random House Audio, narrated by Stephen Hoye.
My review today is part of the TLC book blog tour. You can check out the other blogs who have reviewed THE TECHNOLOGISTS and see what they have to say about it.
I also encourage you to read Matthew Pearl's short story, "The Lady in the Basement," about Ellen Swallow - taking place prior to THE TECHNOLOGISTS - that he published in five parts at the Five Chapters site. Because I found myself constantly running to Google to check on historical elements of the book, I also especially liked this article Pearl wrote about research he did on MIT pranks. Yes, I've been a tad bit consumed by this book. If you enjoy it half as much as I have, you'll get your money's worth and then some.
But, I'll foot the bill for someone here to read it. Well, actually, I'm not footing the bill on this one. But, I do have a copy to give away to a lucky reader (sorry US/Canada residents only on this one). For your entry in the giveaway, just tell me in the comments one technological invention you're very happy you do not have to live without. I'll pick a winner from the entries on March 9th. Good luck...and happy reading!