August 2011 | Jeremy Dibbell

Book Review: "The Technologists"

I've been a fan of Matthew Pearl's novels from the get-go; while I always have a hard time picking "favorite" books, The Dante Club would certainly make any list of top novels I've read. I'm very happy to say that his newest, The Technologists (due in early 2012 from Random House) is another big win.

Set in 1868 Boston, the novel opens with a series of terrifying attacks on the city's commercial infrastructure: compasses on ships in the harbor suddenly malfunctioning simultaneously, window-glass in the business district spontaneously dissolving ... and the events seem likely to continue unless someone can figure out who's behind them.

And just who does Pearl assign to figure out how to save Boston from further attacks? Departing from his earlier trio of novels, it's not a major literary figure, but rather three young men, seniors at the nascent Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plus Ellen Swallow, the first female student at MIT. Facing off against a motley crew of MIT's opponents (including some rowdy trade unionists, Harvard's Louis Agassiz, and a mysterious hooded figure calling himself the "avenging angel,"), the unlikely quartet (who dub themselves "The Technologists") must break some rules in order to protect themselves, their school, and their city.

Pearl's captured the tensions of post-Civil War Boston beautifully, and told the story of MIT's genesis and early years very nicely. The conflicts between those who supported MIT's mission of practical scientific education and those who saw this as a dangerous trend were real, and The Technologists brings that to life in a way that I'm not sure a historian could.

I greatly enjoyed the richly-drawn characters, the pace, the plot, the setting - this is the real deal, a thrilling read that I wanted more of. All I can say is, keep up the good work!