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Book Review: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

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The Technologists by Matthew Pearl is a novel about the early days of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The story takes place in the years after the American Civil War, during a very fragile time in our history.

A Civil War veteran and POW by the name of Marcus Mansfield is attending the first class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a charity student. Even though he is not as rich as his counterparts, Marcus is smart and a scientist in heart and mind.

Mansfield and his colleagues decide to investigate recent strange occurrences in Boston Harbor and the city itself. What’s at stake is the future of MIT as well as modern science itself.

The Technologists  is an entertaining read with wonderful historical detail and a bunch of nerdiness thrown in for good measure. While I wasn’t sucked into the book as much as I would have liked, I found the characters captivating and the plot line interesting.

The author does a great job interweaving reality and fiction as well as the dialog as it was spoken in that time period. The harsh social norms of the time are presented in the form of a lone MIT female student who is forced to study in isolation.

There were several intriguing aspects of this book; it is written almost as a futuristic novel, but of course with technology most of us consider antiquated. The ones I thought were the most interesting were the technological aspect, Harvard’s religious aspects, and flashbacks of the protagonist to the American Civil War.

The overreaching technology which the MIT students dealt with, old in today’s standards but presented in the book as the latest innovations (reminiscent of steampunk) are explained in an interesting way. Technology, then as is now, is sometimes seen as an evil, especially when it looks as if it might cost a whole class their living wage.

I have always held Harvard as a forward-thinking university. This novel, and a quick confirmation on Google, taught me that it wasn’t always so. From my previous reading on American history it seemed to me that Harvard has always strove to innovate, but it seems that around that time Harvard upheld its religious standards higher than its scientific ones.

The university wouldn’t admit students who weren’t Christians, and opposed ideas that did not agree with the Christian dogma based on nothing but the ridiculous idea that religion shouldn’t be questioned.

A few of the chapters are told in flashbacks to the characters’ Civil War experience and how that experience came to influence them at the current timeline. Personally, I would have loved to read more about that era, chapters switching between war experience and how they affect peacetime experiences. Also about how the war technology which was meant to destroy can also be used to rebuild.

Overall, while not a page turner, I found The Technologists to be a solid, above average mystery, which holds itself together well, written by a gifted author.

This book reminded me of: A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer.

You can buy this book in paper or electronic (Kindle) format.

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