Matthew Pearl continues his series of historical novels, following The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow & The Last Dickens, with The Technologists, a story about the confrontation between old and new ideas of technology, in 1868; it’s a time when manpower is starting to lose ground to improved machinery that produce at a faster rate, with higher quality and bigger quantities. After writing books that concentrated around a writer and his work (Dante, Poe, Dickens) mixed in with a series of murders, this time Pearl went for the bigger picture, focusing on a city (Boston) and attacks against its population.
Two bizarre events spread fear and panic into the streets, bringing many of its inhabitants to flee the city. It all starts during a foggy night that sees mayhem and destruction in Boston Harbor; every navigational instrument goes haywire, causing ships to ram into each other or crash into docks. Fortunately, there is no casualty. The second incident occurs a few days later in the city’s downtown when all the windows of the buildings suddenly dissolve and melt as if by an act of evil magic.
Marcus Mansfield is part of the first group of students who’ll graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) founded just four years earlier but already threatened of being canceled permanently. The MIT is controversial because of the science it teaches, ideas it puts into minds, and also for the fact that they allow women to study amongst men. But when the brains of Harvard are clueless regarding the bizarre attacks, it keeps the city in a vulnerable position in the face of its unknown enemy. Mansfield and a few of his classmates then decide to start investigating on their own. Success on their part would mean a better reputation for MIT, helping to prove its use on par with the neighbour Harvard University; but failure would surely signify the end of their college.
As the plot progresses –at times a bit too slowly— towards a spectacular and unpredictable ending, Matthew Pearl unveils a few subplots that make the whole story a complex and interesting journey: a love story, Mansfield’s backstory –his time as a prisoner of war and also as a former machine man, the class differences, etc.
Marcus Mansfield is the perfect central character to carry most of the plot on his shoulders here: he has baggage –was a soldier during the Revolutionary War and while imprisoned by the South army became a leader among his fellow prisoners—he’s intelligent, compassionate and he can hold his own in a physical fight. The cast of characters –many of which really existed-- is as diverse as any you’d find in a college; each one brings a strength to the necessary experiments performed during the secret investigation and to the overall story: the only female student at MIT, the enigmatic Miss Ellen Swallow; the pure and intellectually curious Miss Agnes; the disfigured Joseph Cheshire on the path for revenge, and many others.
Pearl’s attention to details and his knowledge of Boston’s history help make the city vibrantly come alive: as we’re transported into the second half of the 19th century, we follow the author around Boston without ever doubting anything he shows us. If he had already proven that he could write good historical novels, Matthew Pearl now convincingly takes it up a notch and should be considered as one of the best American writers in this genre.
You can visit Matthew Pearl's website at www.matthewpearl.com