Clif Hostetler's Reviews > The Technologists

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl
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Jul 09, 2012

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Read from July 09 to 17, 2012

This book is an adventure mystery, inflated by steampunk science fiction, spiced with occasional thrills, and wrapped in a polished thin veneer of historical fiction. It's the story of a group of technology students who set out to reverse-engineer some acts of terrorism that are taking place in the Boston area in 1868. It is hoped that once it is determined how the acts of terrorism were accomplished it will be possible to determine the identity of the perpetrator. The terrorism involves schemes that require technical knowledge, thus their college is under a cloud of suspicion as a possible source of "evil technology." So the students believe they are on a mission to save their school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The historical fiction in the book provides a good picture of post Civil War 1868 Boston, though a bit overwrought. The story incorporates the spirit of rivalry between an up-start MIT and the old stogy Harvard University. It also describes the widely held fear of technology as a threat to labor employment. Readers so inclined will be able to recognize parallels between social strife in 1868 Boston and current day conditions.

The adventure thriller portions of the book are sufficiently scary. However, the terrorism puzzle to be solved lacks credibility. The book tries to explain everything within the limits of science and chemistry, but it fails to convince anyone with scientific knowledge. If the real world operated as described in this book, civilization would have been destroyed long ago. In the book's "Afterword" the author says that the incidents described in the book are based on actual tragic accidents in that era. I'll grant that bad accidents occur, but I question the ease and magnitude of cause and effect with which they are intentionally caused by human manipulation in this book.

But the really good thing about the book is the fact that the heros in the story are science and engineering students! That fact is a pleasant alternative to the common novel plots that too often place lawyers, detectives and physicians in the role of hero. Engineers are people too. Why aren't more novels written about them? I think that lawyers, physicians and detectives are over represented in mystery/thriller/adventure novels. So any book that makes scientists and engineers appear to be interesting people is to be praised.

I'm thankful that the author included an "Afterword" in the book that explains what portions of the novel are based on historical facts and characters. There are several places where the author has included within the book's narrative documented quotations taken from historical records. One that I found interesting is the following quotation by Ellen Swallow:
"Perhaps the fact that I am not a radical and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things is winning me stronger allies than anything else."
In this book she makes this statement to fellow student Robert Richards. Historically, it's taken from a letter she wrote to her parents while a student at MIT. In the book she's a freshman when Robert is a senior. In reality, he was professor of mineralogy and assaying at the time when she was a student. She was admitted to MIT two years after he graduated. In this book they have a budding romance. In real life they did marry each other with him proposing to her in the chemistry lab. (That's so romantic!)

I am particularly interested in the historical character Ellen Swallow because she was an early participant in the field of Environmental Engineering (a.k.a. sanitary engineering) which is my own M.S. degree field of study. She was the first woman in America accepted to any school of science and technology, and the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry. Her data on water quality were used as basis for the first water-quality standards and the first modern sewage treatment plant in America. Her interest in the environment led her in 1892 to introduce the word "ecology" into English, which had been coined in German to describe the "household of nature".

It's my understanding that as a student Miss Swallow was not allowed to attend lecture classes with the other students because it was believed she would be too much of a distraction to the male students. She instead received individualized tutoring from the professors. I call that a hostile school environment.

The following is a link to a good review of this book that talks a bit more about the historical aspects:
http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N6/technolog...
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