Matthew Pearl's latest book, The Technologists , is just what I have needed to perk up my brain and make me pay attention to detail. His story is set in post-Civil War Boston at the time that MIT is beginning to educate young people in the various burgeoning sciences. This is a time when science and technology come face to face with the ever-growing working (and the beginnings of the middle) class. The story is set against the backdrop of economic threat that many workers felt whenever technology and the industrialization of manufacturing was touted, the moral threat that many in the academic world of humanist education felt when faced with the scientific theories of the new scientists (like Darwin) of this era of educational growth, and the political threat that society dealt with when differing political forces played out their philosophical battles in the public arena.
Pearl's way of writing is a bit weighty, in that he tries very hard to use the vernacular of the age in dialogue, develop characters that are historic within a purely ficticious plot line that has a fantastical element to it, and drop interesting historic tidbits about the geography and history of Boston's urban development. That's a big task and I will say he is partially successful at handling it. The plot does get weighed down at times, though, as he shifts between the many characters and sub-plots that all come together to make the big story.
This brings us to the storyline. Quick study: someone or some group is messing with the fabric of life in the city of Boston. Strange machinations have caused the navigational instruments of the ships entering and leaving Boston harbor to scramble and have caused a series of devastating shipping collisions within the harbor. Panic ensues within the city government when the leaders try to explain to investors and the public just what happened. Within days, other strange and disturbing events occur. The students and faculty of the new college, MIT, are suspect and the public panic threatens the very existence of the university. It's up to a group of students and faculty to figure out just what's happening and explain it to a troubled government and public. Therein lies the plot line. A tangled web indeed!
Of course, as one reads this book there are other issues that crop up. I thought about the level of academic competition that arises when political or public health issues arise and good sound research and cooperation is required to solve the ensuing problems. I also thought about the suspicious reaction that society often has when any new and novel way of looking at the world surfaces. Letting go of old ideas to embrace new ideas is difficult. Change is difficult. Often, man's lesser qualities surface when change is eminent and serve to stymy growth and innovation. It takes people of perseverance and fortitude, honor and humility, wit and resilience to move society along ... just such a group as the technologists.
Let's just put it this way. If you like Boston history, know the city somewhat, have a love for the writing of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, enjoy a good 'Crimie' novel, and like the language of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Henry James and the ilk, you may just enjoy this book ... it's certainly worth a try!