The Technologists has me reaching for nineteenth-century circus poster adjectives: stupendous, extraordinary, death-defying! This novel is a pleasure to dive into, although it's difficult to know where to place it on the literary spectrum - not exactly a historical novel and not exactly a fantasy, not quite a thriller (as advertised) nor a crime story. Finally it dawned on me - Matthew Pearl's 1868 Boston comes to us through the idealism of a comic book. The villain is dastardly, and the heroes have hearts of gold. Both sides of good and evil draw on new discoveries in science and innovations in engineering to give themselves what seem like superpowers. A portion of the comic-book quality of Pearl's Boston may come from the past itself, from his research into the real-life idealists who founded and inaugurated the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1860s. Part of it, though, comes from what must be the author's own optimistic, generous view of humanity. If this is a thriller, the thrill is ultimately a sweet one. (In spite of a few dark moments, this book would be perfectly appropriate for teenage readers.)
Pearl owes some of this ethos to the "Steampunk" genre (see 'Beyond the Book'), which spins a nineteenth-century world of wooden machinery and steam engines into the realm of fantasy. The Technologists claims not to be officially a Steampunk novel, as it keeps its feet grounded in real historical personages, but the connection is very strong. We have chaotic laboratories, esoteric machinery, diving suits. We have inventors trying to outwit each other. In his "Afterword" Pearl claims that "the disasters that plague Boston in my novel are my creation; however, each one has a basis in real technologies developed at the time." Blowing real science up to comic-book proportions, however, lands Pearl squarely in Steampunk territory.
The characters, even those based on real people, are larger than life too. Ellen Swallow is an especially delicious example, excellent to discover as a historical personage and to enjoy in Pearl's version. In life she was the first female student at MIT and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. Pearl takes her story and runs with it, and his Ellen Swallow is a paragon of intellectual brilliance and practical competence. She reminded me of a nineteenth century Nancy Drew - the list of things she knows and can do could fill the endpapers of the book (not just industrial chemistry and the wiring of circuits and the pathology of ergot, but also horticulture, sewing and cooking). She lives in seclusion and goes about in a kind of asexual hijab, so as not to offend anyone with her feminine presence, but she takes it all in stride with Nancy Drew's good sense. Once you get to know her, she's just one of the guys.
"The guys" are the Technologists themselves, MIT students who band together under the auspices of a defunct secret society to investigate mysterious goings-on in Boston. Pearl has some interesting comments to make on the social hierarchies of the day. MIT is a level playing field, with some students drawn from the working class and some old, wealthy families. Bob Richards is one of the bluebloods, and he comes across on the page as a Bostonian Bertie Wooster. There are some run-ins with a posse of spoiled-rotten Harvard men, which seem especially funny when the author's bio reveals that Pearl is himself a Harvard alumnus.
There is something of the comic book even in the psychological forces at work on Pearl's characters - psyches damaged in the past can be turned to good or to evil. Pearl makes his main character (Marcus Manfield) a former machinist and Civil War veteran, which gives him a front-row seat for some of the biggest upheavals of the time. Marcus occupies an uncomfortable position between classes, not born to wealth but educated for professional competence. His war experience has also marked him indelibly. Pearl does not have to exaggerate the effects of the Civil War, for even though Boston of 1868 is far removed from the physical battle scars of the war, evidence of the painful aftermath is everywhere. Marcus is a window to the historical zeitgeist as he suffers from the pain of what happened in the war and dreams of building a new America based on science. A sensitive and perceptive scientist, Marcus is ambivalent about technology and understands the impact it will have on old ways of life.
Pearl sketches anti-technology sentiment with a sympathetic pen. "Imagine a future," shouts a Luddite protester at the Institute, "when, with a single malfunction of your machine, man will live in the dark without memory of how to light a candle." As a culture, we are still nursing that worry.
The moral heart of the novel is very endearing - Pearl gives us an insight into the nineteenth century that is affectionate and indebted. His heroes are honorable and humane and long-seeing. Readers can enjoy the book as an amusing, suspenseful romp and come away with some understanding about how we got to where we are, technologically and morally speaking.
This review was originally published in March 2012, and has been updated for the November 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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