Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists is a classic thriller set in late nineteenth century Boston, in the early days of MIT. The first graduating class of the upstart university, built on landfill and operating under principles that challenged the Harvard model of education, came close to not receiving their diplomas. Historically, that was because MIT was not granted degree-awarding authorization until a few weeks before the scheduled graduation. Pearl invents a plot to obliterate Boston, aimed at silencing MIT and reversing the progress of science and technology, that nearly takes down the university.
Events in The Technologists are wonky but urgent and understandable. The plot is constructed around science as it intersects with the darker recesses of the human heart and the combination is volatile. A thick fog and wildly spinning compasses send ships crashing into each other and the docks in Boston Harbor. A horrifying moment in the downtown financial district kills and maims in a nightmare of melting glass, windows that liquefy and encase bodies before hardening, clocks with their faces permanently melted and time stopped. And even more devastating incidents loom.
Students at MIT engage in constant banter and battle with their Harvard counterparts—there is no love lost between the scientists of either university. Pranks become deadly and class distinctions lead to violence. MIT’s lone woman student, Ellen Swallow, is assigned a solitary lab in the basement and private tutoring to maintain propriety and isolate her from the men. A scholarship student, a senior class brain and a Harvard humanities washout who is a natural engineer team up to expose the mad scientist who is terrorizing Boston. When they find an empty basement lab to hatch plans and perform experiments to determine the methods of the killer, Ellen, a brilliant chemist, is drafted onto the secret team.
Pearl has created a very good thriller and a very good book. The real history that informs some of the plot provides a convincing backdrop as the tension mounts. The effort to unravel the intrigue demands more than a whodunit approach from the reader. Science supplies the clues but elements as disparate as envy, the Civil War, suffrage, family dysfunction, probable Asperger’s or mild autism, professorial careerism, the properties of metals, disbanded secret societies, the evolution of street lighting, wheat mold, and the labor movement of the late 1800s are integral to the solution. What seems fantastical for the time is merely prototype to the commonplace of today. The satisfying battle between good and evil is, of course, timeless.
The Technologists is complex—full of twists, turns, dead ends, and slippery characters. It might keep you up late, as eager as any scientist to see what transpires once the test tube is suspended over the flame.
The Technologists: A Novel Matthew Pearl | Random House 2012