Review of “The Technologists” by Matthew Pearl

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

On a foggy night in 1868, all the ships in the Boston Harbor find that their compasses and other instruments inexplicably spin out of control, and because of the poor visibility, several ships collide. Shortly thereafter, the glass in the windows of the businesses in the central city begins to melt! The glass windows become liquid, but then as they drain out of their frames they reconstitute into glass and shatter as they hit the ground, causing some death and a fair amount of destruction. In an effort to identify the cause of the disasters, the city fathers contact Harvard’s leading scientist, Professor Agassiz, a biologist who has not yet bought into that new absurdity, Darwin’s theory of evolution. Fat chance that this guy will solve the problem. [In real life, Agassiz even once defined a species as “a thought of God,” declaring that “Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe.” Darwin’s Origin of Species, he insisted, “contributed nothing new to the understanding of nature.”]

It so transpires that there is another academic institution of higher learning in Boston, M.I.T., but it is only four years old in 1868 and is not held in the same high regard as Harvard. In fact, Harvard students openly disdain the technocrats, whom they consider less cultured. The boys from M.I.T. are eager to show the police their scientific knowledge, but police aren’t interested, and in fact, they warn the young scientists to stay away from the case. So the boys (and one woman – also a real historical character) have to do their investigating secretly so as not to be discovered by the very people they are trying to help.

The story takes some fairly interesting twists and turns, but the whole premise is highly implausible and the science isn’t even good science fiction. The author, Matthew Pearl, seeks to recreate the atmosphere of 19th century Boston by having the characters speak in a very stilted, fustian manner. For example, much of the writing is like this:

“Hammie had unleashed his wrath before Marcus could reach him. ‘Take your rocks and rioting elsewhere, you ruffians! All the scum of the trades with their bluster won’t frighten a Tech man.’”

And pity Ellen Swallow, in real life MIT’s first woman student, whose memory has been defiled with bad dialogue:

“When I was at Vassar, the girls were as full of slang as any boy I ever heard. Every sentence began with ‘I vow!’ until I could only dream of cotton in my ears and solitude.”

My heavens, Miss Swallow, I too would only dream of cotton in my ears and solitude.

Evaluation: Pearl’s earlier book, The Dante Club, was more successful in evoking the historical era, and featured a much more plausible and interesting plot. I finished this book, but it was not a fascinating read.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Random House, 2012

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11 Responses to Review of “The Technologists” by Matthew Pearl

  1. sandynawrot says:

    OK you made me giggle. Especially at “memory defiled by bad dialogue”. Ha! Eh, well, I don’t think this book was on my list anyway. But I did used to get it confused with Taylor Stephens’ book “The Informationist”. Shame on me, that was an excellent book!

  2. Dialogue like that drives me bonkers so this probably isn’t for me.

  3. zibilee says:

    I read his book The Last Dickens, and loved it, but that may be because I love Dickens! I have heard that The Dante Club and his other book about Poe were very good. It’s too bad that this one was not as thrilling as the others are purported to be.

  4. 2! Forget it!
    actually, it sounds like an interesting premise..shame it did not deliver.

  5. Aw, I had high hopes for this one, and have heard some good things about this book. I’m sad to see you didn’t like it as much.

  6. Jim, what an entertaining review! While I’m not a big fan of this genre, I enjoyed your commentary and excerpts. Sorry this one didn’t pan out for you. Here’s to your next big feature! 🙂

  7. Ugh…I tried to get into this one but just didn’t grab me. There is a short story prequel — the name escapes me though.

  8. Barbara says:

    I had this one on my list (although not at the top) and I’m disappointed that it’s not the book I thought it would be. Thanks for the warning, Jim.

  9. bookingmama says:

    Bummer. I thought I might like this one! Great insight!

  10. Jim’s rating confirmed that I was right when I thought this just didn’t sound like a winning book for me!

  11. Ti says:

    It wasn’t Pearl’s best but I still enjoyed it.

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