The Technologists by Matthew Pearl is the fictitious story of four MIT students trying to uncover the identity of the person responsible for putting Boston into a state of panic. Melting glass, compass malfunctions (and subsequent boat crashes), and boiler eruptions across the city are all coming from one evil source: but who? And is it in an attempt to cast doubt on the new, evil technology school? Taking place in 1868, the year that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a graduating class, this novel beautifully describes the construction going on throughout Boston, the fear of technology (and of men losing their jobs to robots and automatic machinery), and the post-Civil War era. Boston was contending with post-war unemployment, and MIT was facing a lack of funding. All of these factors worked together to create quite an exciting story.
What I did not love was that is could have ended after 350 pages. The 472 that it turned in to was egregious. The protagonist’s personality was not fully developed. He was a prisoner of war and that story comes up a few times throughout the novel, but never does he fully come to appreciate the hardships, overcome them, and use them as fuel to find the bad guy. Instead, that aspect of the story is used to set up the back story of a secondary character’s role in the tragic events. I liked that twist, but I still would have liked to have seen Marcus really grow from those poor circumstances into someone more confident, but I did not.
Being Women’s History Month, I must point out one of my favorite aspects of this novel: the presence of Ellen Swallow, the first female student of MIT. A freshman during the 1867-68 school year, she was not permitted in classrooms with the male population; instead she was tutored privately by professors. This was a serious bone of contention amongst the gentlemen students of MIT and of Boston citizens. A woman studying science was just not done in those times, but Ellen and MIT President William Rogers paved the way for women to do just that. She eventually married fellow student and womanizer Robert Richards (my favorite character in the book), and she made annual donations to the school to encourage the education of women. In 1883, twelve years after she graduated MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry, accepting women as undergraduates became commonplace. Her goal was achieved.
This is a fairly good historical fiction thriller, but 125 pages too long. Pearl and his editors really could have pared it down a bit. Regardless, I will definitely recommend it to those interested in historical fiction, thrillers, and anyone who likes Erik Larsen’s books. Although a work of fiction, there are really great non-fiction aspects about this novel.