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Matthew Pearl – The Technologists

November 16, 2011

LibraryThing Early Reviewers139. The Technologists by Matthew Pearl (2012)

Length: 474 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 28 October 2011
Finished: 30 October 2011

Where did it come from? From Random House via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I do enjoy a good historical mystery now and again, and if it’s combined with an element of history of science, so much the better!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 September 2011.

There’s a madman loose,
and it’s up to the Techies
to stop his attacks.

Summary: In 1868, words like “science” and “technology” were only beginning to enter the common parlance, but a fledgling college in the Back Bay area of Boston was just about to graduate its first class of seniors. Most people are at best of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, and many people predict that the fledgling Massachusetts Institute of Technology will soon falter. When a series of increasingly terrifying disasters are inflicted upon the city, the Institute’s officials decides not to become involved, fearing to be associated with the terrorists acts… or worse, thought to be their cause. But a small group of seniors, including scholarship student Marcus Mansfield and sole female student Ellen Swallow, know that only the technological knowledge of those at the Institute can hope to uncover the man behind the attacks… and prevent them from growing even more deadly.

Review: This book exemplifies one of the things I love best about reading, and about reading historical fiction in particular: it makes me interested in things I didn’t even realize were out there to be interested about. I like history of science in general, but I’m typically more focused on the biology side of things, and had never given much thought to the history of more applied science, or how it interacted with the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, or the evolution of science education. The founding of MIT is the perfect stage on which to examine these things, and I found the historical details quite fascinating. The technology-based terrorist attacks in the book are fiction, but I appreciated that the rest of the setting, and many of the characters, were real and otherwise true to history.

It also didn’t hurt that it was for the most part a compelling mystery/thriller. The disasters that Pearl has imagined are just on the terrifying edge of plausibility; for much of the book, I was almost more interested for the characters to find out *how* the attacks had been accomplished than in learning who was behind them. Unfortunately, the book dragged a little bit in the middle, with plenty of character development and a fair amount of action, but not much forward progress in unravelling the main plot. Also, towards the end, there are a series of red herrings thrown at the reader in rapid succession, with several of them not being well-developed enough to be particularly believable before they’re replaced with another. But otherwise, things ticked along at a good pace, and I remained interested in the story throughout, even in the places where I thought it could have used some paring down.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the prose style; I’m not sure if Pearl was purposefully trying to match his prose to the time period, or if it’s just the way he writes, but there were definitely places where the writing felt noticeably labored, instead of disappearing into the background. It was never enough to turn me off of the book, but it’s also not my favorite prose style I’ve come across, either. Overall, though, this was a solid historical mystery set in a fascinating period. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Other than current and former MIT students? I’d give this to fans of historical thrillers, engineering wonks, and people interested in reading about the Industrial Revolution.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Its proud lines intermittently visible through the early morning fog, the Light of the East might have been the most carefree ship that ever floated into Boston.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 10: “Even seated in his shell, he presented the particular mincing swagger of a Harvard senior. “It’s been ages. You’re not forming a randan team, are you?”” – a rowboat designed for three people, one person in the middle using two oars and the other two using one oar each.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 3:10 pm

    Historical fiction that’s a mystery/thriller? Now you’re talking! This sounds good.

    • December 2, 2011 10:32 am

      BermudaOnion – I think you’d enjoy this one, and (from what I’ve heard; I haven’t read them yet), the rest of Pearl’s books.

  2. November 16, 2011 7:21 pm

    I read The Dante Club and enjoyed it but understand what you mean about his writing. It’s awkward in some places. I still want to read this one though.

    • December 2, 2011 10:34 am

      Amy – So it sounds like it might be Pearl’s prose style, and not something that’s unique to this book. I’ve got The Dante Club on my TBR pile, and I’m definitely still going to read it, but I appreciate being able to go in forewarned. :)

  3. November 17, 2011 7:31 pm

    Sounds great! I love the historical fiction too because “it makes me interested in things I didn’t even realize were out there to be interested about.” I agree wholeheartedly. This one is on my list. Awesome thoughts.

    • December 2, 2011 10:35 am

      Annette – I can’t even begin to count the number of Wikipedia pages I’ve read trying to get more of the “real” information on some piece of historical fiction I’m reading. (I know, I know about the reliability of Wiki information, but it’s still a place to start.)

  4. November 17, 2011 10:59 pm

    I have heard a lot about Matthew Pearl, but I have never read him before…

    • December 2, 2011 10:35 am

      Kailana – This is the first book of his that I’ve read, so I can’t say whether it’s the best place to start with his work, but it’s an interesting read for sure.

  5. November 21, 2011 2:59 pm

    I’ve been curious about this one ever since I first saw it. I’m not too sure about the period style prose, but other than that it appeals to me.

    • December 2, 2011 10:36 am

      Alyce – I’d definitely recommend giving it a try; you might have a completely different reaction to the prose style than I did (or not notice it at all!)

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