|It is 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. In Boston, in Back Bay, a marshy area that has never been developed, a new institution of higher learning has its beginning. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has opened its doors to its first group of students. Almost at the same time, a disaster has occurred in Boston Harbor. For some reason the compasses which aid seamen in directing their ships all malfunction simultaneously, and ships collide in the dark. As a result, commerce comes to a standstill because the harbor is said to be bewitched.
No one has been able to explain the mysterious occurrence but rumors abound suggesting that work of so called technologists at this new institution are responsible for the disaster. Some suggest that nature is revolting against man’s attempts to control it. Several factions have appeared, rival school Harvard, the labor unions, and the press all have opinions on the matter.
At MIT a group of four young men about to be among the first graduating class, and one young woman who is studying independently at the school band together to try and discover the real cause of the disaster in Boston Harbor. Each of the young people possess a unique scientific skill. By utilizing the assets each student possess they are able to formulate a theory that they think explains the facts of the case. The task remaining to them is to prove that their theory is correct.
Matthew Pearl has constructed an ingenious plot in which time, place, and diverse classes of society are integrated into a perfectly crafted tale. Boston in the post Civil War era was composed of a distinct upper class members who inherited their wealth and position, Civil War veterans who were able to gain access to higher education through their war service or connections, intelligent folk who gained some status through their efforts in industry, and a small but determined group of women for whom education and intellectual stimulation ranked higher in their aspirations than marriage and a family. Each of the individuals in the secret society formed at MIT represents one of these segments of society.
Boston Harbor and the commerce that flowed through is an essential ingredient to the plot. The atmosphere of a town where higher education is a priority also plays an important role. Indeed, the memories and repercussions of the recently ended war on those that actively participated and those that did not are forces that directly impact the events in the tale.
Thrillers are usually associated with catastrophic events produced by modern technology. If one imagine oneself as a resident of Boston in 1868, The Technologists certainly fits that description. All the tension and action are here transported to an earlier time. In this way Pearl is able to deliver a history lesson along with his adventure. The problems of the time viewed some 140+ years later provide a contrast or comparison to today’s dilemmas.
The title of the book is particularly apt. Though today we associate technology with advances in computer science, the discoveries that were made in the time frame of this novel were technological innovations. One of the underlying themes of the novel is the creative use of the mind, development of a plan and following the plan to its logical conclusion. As one of the group members remarks in their pursuit of the answer to their problem, “We must think like a madman.”
Pearl leaves his readers with some thought to ponder in regard to scientific endeavors. The technologist could use their minds to try and defend Boston against an unknown enemy, but this power did not grant them the ability to see the future. They had developed an experiment and thought out how to execute it, but whether it would work as they had foreseen remained for the future to tell them.
The Technologists is a book that will appeal to a variety of readers. Historical fiction devotees, thriller lovers, those dedicated to intricate plotting, and just plain mystery fans will all find something to enjoy in this latest effort by Matthew Pearl.