The Technologists

by Matthew Pearl

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 2012
Category: science thriller; historical thriller; mystery

Tech rating (out of 5):

{special: 19th century technology}

SUMMARY (from publisher):

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.


The Technologists is another historical thriller by bestselling author Matthew Pearl (The Dante Club, The Last Dickens, The Poe Shadow) and his first story to deal with science and technology.

I loved the concept for this novel.  Essentially, Pearl takes the idea of techno-terrorism and transports it to 19th century Boston, mixing it up with a society already fearful of technological change and anxious about the young college devoted to new, scary sciences.  (I see many parallels to present-day scientific ignorance and fear of replacing humans with machines.)  The author cleverly comes up with several plausible-enough terrorist attacks that fit with 19th century tech, and gives us a brilliant cast of young heroes–the first graduating class from MIT.  As a bonus, he makes the neighboring Harvard guys real jerks.

I confess that some of my affection for this tale is rooted in the fact that graduated from Harvard College (where women now roam freely…) and I also took classes at MIT.  I have a real fondness for and fascination with “the ‘Tute” as some call it.  This, plus the singular concept of setting a science thriller in the 19th century, had me hooked before I turned the first page.

And I did read through to the satisfying conclusion.  However, I skimmed a lot of the middle-to-end of the novel.  My sense of The Technologists is author Pearl was working on a deadline and didn’t have enough time to digest and properly edit what he’d written.  The novel is too long.  Some scenes could be eliminated, many should be significantly shorter.  While trying to emulate the speaking style of the time, the dialogue frequently becomes ponderous.  Repeated and unnecessary use of characters’ names in dialogue also grated on me after a while (e.g., “Bob, we must go.”).

The other major weakness of this novel is a series of twists at the end which didn’t feel believable to me.  I simply didn’t buy the villain’s motivation.  But the action sequences that wrap up the finale were great.

Given the inherent appeal of the plot, setting, and characters of The Technologists, and the liberal use of real history, I still recommend this novel for science thriller fans.  Read it and don’t feel guilty about skipping parts if you wish.

Key words: MIT; Harvard; Cambridge; Boston; Civil War; machine man; Edwin Hoyt; Albert Hall; Ellen Swallow; William Barton Rogers; Whitney Conant; Louis Agassiz

FCC disclaimer: A free e-copy of this book was given to me by the publisher for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

If you like this book, try: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro

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