From the author of The Dante Club, another novel set in 1860s Boston, The Technologists focuses on scientific advances of the time and the field of technology, instead of on the literary luminaries of the day. As in The Dante Club, author Matthew Pearl places historical personages in his imagined story, so readers are introduced to MIT founder and president William Barton Rogers; MIT’s first female MIT student, Ellen Swallow; and other actual people.
A small group of students form the secret society of Technologists when the fledgling Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston is about to graduate its first class. (MIT hasn’t yet moved across the Charles to Cambridge.)
But The Technologists isn’t only for historical fiction readers! Infused with steampunk-like elements and a good amount of philosophizing and theorizing about science and technology, this novel about a college students who decide to investigate mysterious attacks on the city of Boston independently of authorities should also appeal to adventure quest fans and science fiction readers.
With a length of just over 18 hours, the book had a few slow spots, but for the most part the story moved briskly along with increasing suspense. Audiobook narrator Stephen Hoye used a sonorous tone for his reading that seemed well suited to the story’s place and time. He distinguishes the voices of the different characters clearly, using variations on a Boston accent for the upper-class academics and working-class folk. Importantly, he has a light touch when changing the pitch of his voice for the female characters.
The Technologists‘ main character and hero, Marcus Mansfield – a factory boy and Civil War veteran turned scholarship student – teams up with a few other MIT students (including Ellen Swallow) to solve the mystery of who is terrorizing the city of Boston with escalating acts of technological sabotage and why. Woven into the suspenseful mystery plot are strands of romance; elements of rivalry (the growing one between traditional Harvard and upstart MIT); the idea of rights for women and workers; and the theme of injustice in the clear inequality of opportunity for society’s rich and poor classes.
Its strong story line, well-researched historical setting, and numerous thought-provoking themes combine to make The Technologists a great choice for a book discussion group, and most likely contributed to its winning the 2013 Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction. Massachusetts Book Award winners and Must Reads are books by Massachusetts authors, or that have a Massachusetts theme, that will foster meaningful discussions in libraries and elsewhere around the state. Author Matthew Pearl will receive the honor at an awards ceremony at the Massachusetts State House on October 17, at 2:00 p.m. Everyone is welcome!
(A note of warning: Although published over a year before the Boston Marathon bombings linked the words “Boston” and “terrorism” together in people’s minds and there is no similarity in methods or motives, The Technologists does describe horrific acts in the city of Boston that cause death and maiming of civilians; extra sensitivity is required when choosing this book for a book group. The Massachusetts Book Award winners were chosen and announced in March 2013, before the terrorist acts at this year’s Boston Marathon.)
The author takes small liberties with the timeline (for example, Ellen Swallow didn’t come to MIT until 1871) but The Technologists is historically accurate as to the people and science of the day. You don’t, however, have to be either an American history buff or a techno-geek to enjoy it as a suspenseful, thought-provoking story.
Hoye, Stephen, narr.
Random House Audio
$29.98 US/$32.98 CAN
18 hours, 19 minutes on 15 CDs
Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.