Publication Date: February 21, 2012
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.
Studded with suspense and soaked in the rich historical atmosphere for which its author is renowned, The Technologists is a dazzling journey into a dangerous world not so very far from our own, as the America we know today begins to shimmer into being.
The only way for me to really talk about The Technologists is to pull it apart into its different layers. At its most basic, Pearl's The Technologists is a mystery, a thriller. It is also a novel with a profound sense of place - not only of the where but also when. Pearl takes his setting very seriously, and in it is entirely convincing - in fact, it is primarily in the steampunkish technology that we wander outside of historical fiction into alternative history. Finally, The Technologists reads almost as an Ode to Science and Technology, as well as an exploration of their place and purpose in the world. It explores the morals and ethics of innovation, the value of technology and scientific discovery, and even attempts to distill to its simplest form what science and technology really are.
It is only in that first, most basic layer of the book - they mystery/thriller - that I feel Pearl has failed. His writing style, while beautiful and absolutely perfect for his other aims, hampers the sense of urgency he is attempting to create. I recently read a very interesting blog post from Query Shark in which she talked about word count in sentences, and sentence count in paragraphs, as part of what increases tension in mystery/thrillers. Pearl's writing can at best be called languid. It is the type of prose you wallow in, not speed through. Additionally, I get that it is a convention of the genre to introduce the reader, at a rapid rate in the first of the books, to numerous people who will be among primary characters, secondary characters, as well as mere victims of whatever disaster is imminent. This lack of characterization is okay because it is rapid. Unfortunately, according to my Goodreads status updates, I had read a fifth of the book before I really started getting to know the main characters of The Technologists. I knew that the mystery would eventually unfold; I knew that the Tech boys (and girl) would eventually be my focus; I didn't particularly care. But, here's the thing: I did care enough to keep reading because of all the other layers that Pearl did really, really well.
As a reader, I have to attach myself to someone to continue to invest in a book. Pearl's constant introduction of new characters left me with little other option but to attach to Boston, the city, as its own character. (In fact, I would be quite surprised to find that it was not at least partially Pearl's intent to make Boston so present in the novel that it appeared a character.) Likewise, Pearl's writing is at times so evocative of the mid to late 1800s, that I was surprised when I get to something 'alternative'. Everything from sentence structure to word phrasing to chosen vocabulary firmly places the book in the 19th century, while simultaneously being approachable by the modern reader. Pearl does this with such balance and grace that it is truly beautiful to behold. I was shown 19th century Boston in all its full-bodied glory.
However, where The Technologists really shines is in its handling of science and technology. It is the story of the pioneers of science education. This book is firmly about the time in history when MIT had to fight for its very existence in a world that mistrusted it. Yet, it would require an almost ostrich-like approach to current events to not realize that this is a battle still playing out today. The thing I think I most appreciated about Pearl was his ambiguity. His characters were not always fully formed because they were often embodiments of the different views people take in this fight. Marcus WAS MIT, and MIT was Marcus. Agassiz is Intelligent Design, and Intelligent Design is Agassiz. And, in allowing each of these approaches to be embodied by a person, Pearl allows more nuance and ambiguity into the discussion. It is easy to ask MIT to have a protectionist stance, as an institution, within the city of Boston for its own self preservation. However, to think of Marcus sitting idly by feels morally wrong. This duality in the characters allows the reader to see the hypocrisy in thinking something is a safe decision from an institution, but morally repugnant from an individual. They are the same. So often in this fight between science educators and moral objectionists, all the decisions seem to come from cold, faceless institutions; but really they are made by people with fear, hubris, conviction, excitement, etc. - people who are anything but cold or faceless. Pearl is also perpetually defining and redefining science and technology, and the definitions rarely feel wrong. I found myself nodding along with Agassiz at first, until his rants slowly slipped into something that, at first I only could not follow, until finally they reached something I abhor.
The Technologist asks of us, where is the line between protecting ourselves with innovation and from innovation? When have we gone too far? Where does religion fit into a new, more scientific world? Where does science fit into a religious worldview? What about ethics and morality? Where is the moral line between theory and practice? (For example, was it morally acceptable for these scientists to theorize about the construction of this new virus, but wrong to actually create it? Or was it wrong to even theorize? Or should they have been allowed to create it and publish it anyway, for the sake of learning?) Does technology improve society or destroy it? Are we naturally innovators, or do we defy nature by our innovation? Were we already set apart as better than the world around us, or do we set ourselves apart by our attempts to better ourselves? Do great minds arise because of education, or in spite of it? There is not always a set right or wrong in these questions, but dynamic shades of grey that change as often as the faces of science and technology themselves change. Other times there are clear rights and wrongs, and they require action - and Pearl shows that as well. I love how deftly and beautifully Pearl deals with these issues, how he often forces the questions without providing the answers, and so I don't really care that I felt no urgency for his mystery - that wasn't really the most important question he asked anyway.
Review Copy provide by Random House.
Review also appears on Goodreads