For my writing group’s next book club I read Matthew Pearl
’s The Technologists
, which I borrowed as an ebook from the Boston Public Library
because I just figured out how to do fancy things like that. I think The Technologists
is a fitting first title for me to have checked out for this futuristic new way of availing myself of the venerable BPL’s services, because The Technologists
is very much about technological advancement, and it is also very much about Boston.The Technologists
is a historical fiction/mystery/thriller concerning several members of the first graduating class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
, back in 1868. At this time, the school was known as Boston Tech, and rather than occupying its current stretch of Cambridge, its first location was in the then-newly-filled-in Back Bay area. The first main buildings of the Boston Tech campus, the Rogers and Walker buildings, were part of a lot between Boylston and Newbury streets, between Clarendon and Berkeley. These buildings were later torn down to build the New England Mutual Life Insurance Building at 501 Boylston Street, which currently houses Pearson Education’s Boston headquarters, and where I worked for most of two years. Needless to say, I think this is very exciting! It is particularly exciting to me because The Technologists
is one of those books that is very, very intimately tied into the place it takes place in, and Matthew Pearl does an excellent job of showing us nineteenth century Boston in vivid, meticulously researched detail. It’s really fascinating to hear about all these streets and gardens and buildings that I know pretty well from living here for the past three years, and to hear about what they were like 150 years ago (some of which I am already familiar with), and to, for once, be able to actually have a good geographical sense of where the action of the story is taking place, the way that people who actually know their way around New York must feel about 95% of the rest of American storytelling.
It’s also very interesting to me to hear about how very controversial MIT was, and the degree of disdain that so much of the establishment had for it—particularly the recurring sentiment that technological studies weren’t real
education, and that MIT was for dunces who couldn’t manage to get into a real
college. Basically the exact opposite of MIT’s reputation now.
The premise of The Technologists
is that someone is somehow engineering crazy mad science disasters around Boston and throwing everybody into a panic, and nobody is able to figure out how. The Boston police, being the BPD even back then, are loathe to admit they are in over their heads, and when they do decide to have a scientific consultant, they go to a pompous biology teacher at Harvard who is more concerned with mocking evolution than actually solving the mystery, because it would be politically dangerous to consult “Tech,” even though “Tech” is the school that actually studies this sort of thing. The administrators at Boston Tech/MIT, facing funding issues and an increasingly hostile public perception, vote not to take any initiative to investigate or offer help to the BPD.
This doesn’t sit well with Marcus Mansfield, our protagonist, a charity scholar who served in the Union army during the Civil War and then worked as a machine engineer in a locomotive shop. Marcus and a couple of fellow students—handsome and charming Bob Richards, the first non-Harvard man from a family of Harvard men; quiet and nervous Edwin Hoyt, who actually transferred to Tech out of Harvard; Ellen Swallow, Tech’s only female student; and Hammie, eccentric genius and son of the owner of the locomotive shop Marcus used to work at—begin their own investigation into the events, under the guise of being a regular college society, called the Technologists. Their investigation leads them to discover lots of cool science and engineering things, but it also brings them into the line of fire of a wealthy but maddened burn victim, a supposedly disbanded and very douchebaggy Harvard secret society and its entitled twit of a leader, a traitorous professor, the BPD again, some very self-centered captains of industry, and, of course, the evil mastermind behind the whole thing.
One thing I particularly liked about this novel was that it’s not just a straight whodunit; the big engineered disasters—compasses failing so boats crash into each other in Boston Harbor in the fog; all the glass in the Financial District melting at once, mass ergot poisoning, industrial boilers bursting simultaneously—are intricately woven into the political and social issues the characters are dealing with, from the fallout of the Civil War to academic squabbling over university funding, plus the never-ending peculiarities of the very nineteenth century restriction on Ellen Swallow. (The ergot poisoning bit, for instance, only happened after someone stole Miss Swallow’s notes studying rye—that it was the disaster engineer who had stolen them was not immediately apparent, due to the degree of harassment and sabotage Miss Swallow was subjected to regularly.) The students’ investigation is also very tied up with the Institute’s president, William Rogers, who suffers a stroke or something like it early in the novel, thus leading Marcus to steal a bunch of his papers and strike up a flirtation with his chambermaid Agnes, who helps out doing what is essentially spy work for their investigation. I found Agnes to be a pretty compelling character, particularly for a designated love interest who is a secondary character; she is a pragmatic, good little Irish Catholic girl who mourns having had to abandon her “unladylike” girlhood interest in science in order to secure a respectable position. She is also the only character who just thinks Ellen Swallow must be the bee’s knees before even meeting her.
Ellen Swallow was always going to be my favorite character because pioneering lady scientist, and she did not disappoint! Miss Swallow is eccentric in a stiff, very Puritan sort of fashion, although she is affectionate toward her cat, Baby. She is an excellent analytical chemist and has an interest in food science (she was a real person, who did go on to become a pioneer in food science and food safety and that sort of thing, go Wikipedia her right now); her introduction to the story is off-puttingly weird in the tradition of all the best major supporting characters, and while we eventually get to know her and find her more sympathetic and comprehensible, she never loses the curt stiffness and Puritanism that initially characterize her. She is extremely New Englandy, even in a book full of extremely New Englandy people.
I think my biggest issue with this book was probably the pacing; it starts off at a nice leisurely pace that might bore a lot of readers of thrillers but which I found to be perfectly fine—the initial disaster at the Harbor opens the book and then we get a lot of characterization and backstory and academic politics before anyone really even starts figuring out how it happened, let alone who did it or why. Near the end, though, the story picks up to an almost frenzied pace, cycling quickly through about four different suspects before landing on discovering the final bad guy. I also was somewhat disappointed with who it actually turned out to be; it was a character I had liked, and his reasoning for turning out all evil and stuff didn’t really make that much sense to me. I had my own guess about who the bad guy was, and while it would have been a bit more obvious, I feel like my guess would have made more sense.
The book features a lot of philosophical discussion about technology and its role in society and questions of scientific ethics, access, that sort of thing—all the questions that people in the nineteenth century were up in arms about, many of which are similar to the questions people ask about technology today (sometimes unfortunately… the anti-evolutionists might have finally left Harvard but it looks like they’ve all moved to Congress and the Texas school board instead). There are also a lot of questions about technology and labor, although not a lot of answers are given, other than that everyone hates trade unionists but that doesn’t always mean the guy hating on trade unionists with you is on your side. (The trade unionists in this book are also engaging in PETA-like levels of Bad Activism.)
I was surprised to learn that the author of this novel went to Harvard, considering that Harvard is here portrayed as unmitigatedly assbaggy
. The most satisfying moments in the novel are like five different variations of punching Harvard dudes in the face and/or exploding things in their face. They’re pretentious, entitled, and belligerently behind the times in all things. It makes 1868 Harvard sound like a college populated entirely by clones of Mitt Romney, which is quite possibly historically accurate.
The ebook of The Technologists
comes with a not-very-short short story called The Professor’s Assassin
, which is a dramatization of a real event, the murder of University of Virginia President Davis. The protagonist here is William Barton Rogers, a professor at the University at the time, who would go on to found Boston Tech/MIT. The murder takes place during a spate of riots on the University campus where a bunch of very gentlemanly Southern gentlemen wish to be able to go about armed in the classroom, and, much like gun nuts today, decide to prove themselves totally responsible and absolutely to be trusted with deadly weaponry by going about masked and anonymously smashing things up and threatening people with guns. After somebody threatens Rogers with a gun and somebody else murders President Davis, Rogers teams up with a couple of other characters around the campus to be all detective-y and solve the murder, eventually finding the culprit and turning him into the police. It’s a short and satisfying little murder mystery, although the reader must wonder how all these dead people would feel about being fictionalized.
I would recommend The Technologists
and The Professor’s Assassin
to people who don’t mind books that can’t really be fit neatly into one genre, who like dealing with multiple kinds of nerdery at once, and who love Boston.