Clare Cannon's Reviews > The Technologists

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl
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's review
Mar 11, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: adults, young-adult
Recommended for: Adults & Young Adults
Read from April 22 to 30, 2012

Quite a surprise on two accounts: first because it is a little slower to start than expected, but second because the characters, action, intrigue and all-round quality of the story increases exponentially from there to the end. I admit I am impatient with scene-setting and sorting out who's who, but perhaps a little more preparation in the reader would allow them to enjoy it sooner.

Boston in the 1860s, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, is still generally uneasy about scientific development. New 'technology' institutes - focusing on practical experimentation in science for the benefit of society - are struggling for recognition in an academic world prejudiced against anything outside the Harvard hierarchy. The 'Tech' students are the poor cousins of the 'collegy boys', and there is rivalry between them. Female students are an anomaly in a predominantly male student body. There is division among professors about whether technological developments should be privately managed (and 'protected'), or whether they are something that the general public should have a right to access.

Pearl's Technologists zooms in on a group of Tech students who must grapple with all of these issues. The public catastrophes orchestrated to bring their struggles to a head are fictional, but based on actual scientific developments of the time. And once the catastrophes begin, the pace quickens and it is increasingly difficult to put the book down.

As historical fiction it is impeccably crafted, with every detail, piece of machinery, article of clothing, character trait, vocal expression, indeed every breath of wind seeming to be a direct channel to life in the 1860s. But the characters hold the show, and it is their interactions that draw you into the story. By the end one feels one belongs in the 1860s Boston college scene, and that the Technologists' fight for their place in the academic world is an essential part of your life's purpose. And most extraordinary (for me, at least) was that chemistry should prove to be of such fascinating importance to life as we know it. I'll never look at the periodic table in the same way again.
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04/22/2012 page 106

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