Ordinarily, I am reluctant to read Literature-with-a-capital-L. Books that are (or are apt to be) reviewed by the New York Times tend to have self-conscious (if beautiful) prose, tortured characters, and unhappy endings. So years ago, when Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club was all the rage, I studiously ignored it, until a friend said, "You're coming to town? That night is my book club. Read this before you arrive." ...And I was hooked. Pearl writes beautifully _without_ torturing everybody in sight; he makes you savor each page.
So when I saw his new book among my Amazon Vine options, I reached for the SEND ME THIS BOOK button without hesitation.
This novel is set in Boston in 1868 -- the same era as The Dante Club, but down the street a few miles. Our heroes (including our primarily protagonist) are in the final few months at the newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose fifteen-member inaugural class is about to graduate. Meanwhile someone is doing dastardly deeds, beginning with a disaster in the Boston Harbor that cannot be explained (such as compasses that go haywire). And there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY anyone would ask the students from that weird Tech school to get involved, when there is the respectable Harvard University down the street whose assistance might be asked instead.
The MIT history is real. The science-based attacks in Boston, not so much. Which is just fine with me, because Pearl's story kept my mind whirring to separate the stuff I know (I've spent a lot of time in Boston) from the fiction. And because I learned so very much about what it meant to be a "technologist" in that era.
Today, we take the march of technology for granted. We may object to its overuse and its excesses and we may worry about automation taking away jobs, but it's part of our lives. In the late 1800s, when Darwinism was considered a cultish belief system that no self-respecting scientist would take seriously, the Institute of Technology was on very shaky ground. "When I was a student at Harvard," says an MIT professor in one scene, "My very interest in chemistry made me an outcast, and later Agassiz refused to allow me to teach it there. The Institute is on the verge of leading the way to a new age of scientific acceptance among the public, and we cannot risk delaying that."
The end result was a book that I didn't want to put down. Pearl drew me into the era completely... though perhaps my familiarity with present-day Boston gave the mental picture more depth. I liked the characters, and I was sometimes startled by the intersection of so many events; in 1868, Boston is still trying to come to terms with the end of the Civil War, for instance.
The Technologists is not absolutely perfect; some of the viewpoint-changing got on my nerves a teeny bit. And I wonder if a reader who is less scientifically-minded will follow some of the experiments.
I heartily recommend this book as a great historical mystery for techies. And probably for others, too (though they may give it 4 stars); Pearl is a good storyteller.