Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

Title: The Technologists
Author: Matthew Pearl

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / Boston / MIT / Scientific Thriller / Historical Figure Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House (2/21/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The first class of MIT faces prejudice, fear, and accusations of black magic as weird technological disasters plague 1860s Boston.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I don't think I have strong feelings about it, although I'm leaning toward 'eh' on it.

First line: Its proud lines intermittently visible through the early morning fog, the Light of the East might have been the most carefree ship that ever floated into Boston.

Do... I love Matthew Pearl's extras?: YES. His website has photographs of some of the characters as well as a prequel available for download.

Am... I totally keen to prowl around MIT now?: YES. I'm deeply saddened that I don't know any MIT grads so I'm going to see if there are any museums or halls open to the public.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I love books set in Boston, and I've long been curious about Matthew Pearl's novels.

Review:  This is a hefty historical (496 pages) with a good chunk of nerdiness, a big cast, and a lovely mix of fantasy and fact.  Set in the late 1860s, the story follows the first class of MIT -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- while the city of Boston is being plagued by bizarre disasters.  In an era when the word 'technology' was feared and the aims of MIT distrusted, the scientific studies pursued by the students was challenge enough, but made all the more difficult as the public accused the school of black magic.

I was telling a friend this book reminded me a bit of steampunk novels with the mix of fantastical technology although, if I understand correctly from Pearl's Afterward, the events and technologies featured were historically accurate. Pearl often had me wondering Is that true? about many an event and tidbit, and I was pretty captivated by that storyline. The novel has a number of diverse plot threads woven through, from the seemingly fantastical technological attacks on Boston to the Harvard/MIT rivalry that shaped the city's investigation of the attacks.

One of the most unique angles for me was the view of Harvard University as parochial and old-fashioned. Whereas the students of MIT were studying science without an overarching theology, Harvard students were not admitted unless they held Christian beliefs. (There's a scene where Prof. Agassiz -- a real naturalist and Harvard professor -- refused admittance of a student because he wouldn't refute Darwin's evolutionary ideas.) It was a fascinating flip for me as I perceive Harvard as quite forward thinking, and as Pearl is a Harvard grad himself, I appreciated his willingness to show his alma mater in a less flattering light.

Overall, a very entertaining read, quite meaty and thick with historical detail and characters. I wasn't emotionally sucked in but I was certainly interested in the characters and plot lines, and I think this would be a great read for those who like history but not necessarily historical novels.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Technologists to one lucky winner! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/16.


23 comments:

  1. Interesting! I don't really mind not getting sucked in emotionally. I just won this over at another site, so I don't need to enter, but am looking forward to reading it!

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    1. Can't wait to see what you think of it! For me, science-y things are not my bag, and the lack of female characters for me to really connect with kept me from being swept up -- but I was entertained!

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  2. Interesting to consider Harvard in an earlier time with it's strict theological adherence - surely it wasn't the only school of the day to hold such standards, but what a different world. Sounds interesting all around.

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    1. Exactly -- I'm pretty sure a foundation in Christianity was a requirement of many US universities (I think it's part of that 'classical' education) -- but seeing Harvard posited as the backwards place was very unique!

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  3. My good friend's dad graduated from MIT, but I haven't talked to him in years. I don't know that I'd like the steampunk feel, though, or the fantastical technology. =/

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    1. Well, the author's afterward gave me the sense that the events/technologies featured were all historically accurate, however outlandish, so my describing it as steampunk-y might be unfair. Still, it's pretty techno-oriented, so if that's not your fancy, it might not be the right book...

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  4. I love Matthew Pearl, but missed my chance to review this book. It sounds like something that I would really love though, and I am betting that I will be reading it sometime soon. This was a really thoughtful and honest review, and I appreciated it!

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    1. I can't wait to read your thoughts -- you always lift up and pull out the most interesting themes and threads -- it makes my reading all the more richer!

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  5. I really like Matthew Pearl and have been so excited for this review. Sounds like it was a winner. I don't do HF all that often, but I love the sound of this. Thanks!

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    1. I can see why he has such devoted fans -- his writing is nerdy but not obscure, dense but not heavy, obviously well-researched and features that unique mix of thriller and history. My usual angle for getting in to a story -- the woman's viewpoint -- wasn't here so I think that's why I wasn't swept up, but I was certainly entertained!

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  6. I really enjoyed his book, the last dickens. I thought that was well done. I still want to read this one even if you feel "eh" about it.

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  7. I've never read any of Matthew Pearl's novels, but this sounds as if it might be one I would like. Thanks for the review.

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  8. I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The rivalry between Harvard and MIT was amusing. I can see how competitive the two would be against one another... Harvard being a well-respected institution for higher learning, and MIT being the odd man out. Wonder what they think of each other now. LOL.

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    1. I think they're still pretty competitive -- but I don't think MIT has to worry about the little-college-that-might-not anymore, given its stature in the world of science and research.

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  9. I am giving it an eh too. Not for me this time around

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  10. This book sounds interesting. I also think Pearl is an awesome author though I haven't yet read any of his books in full. I have read a chapter or two of a couple of his books when my husband was reading them. I like Pearl's writing very much. I think it's interesting how different this book is from his earlier ones. I have been wondering if and when he was going to change things up and what kind of book he'd write when he did.

    Through some family members I heard quite a bit about Harvard several years ago and, although a brilliant institue of learning in the past it definitely wasn't considered liberal. Just the opposite very conservative values, very white-male oriented etc. But I'd think that in today's world in order to keep up, they'd have to be more liberal? It's an interesting topic and I love the MIT/Harvard rivalry theme!

    Thank you for another great review, Audra. I always appreciate your honesty and although this isn't a book that grabbed you and sucked you in, it sounds like a pretty fascinating book in some respects especially with the historically accurate events and technologies.

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  11. I have such mixed feeling when it comes to Matthew Pearl. From his books' summaries, I should be head over heels for him. However, when I've actually tried to read some of his books, it took every effort to finish (& to date I've only managed to finish one). I keep wanting to give him more and more chances, but every time I try his books I just can't get into them. :( I want to love him!

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  12. I do have a copy of this one -- anxious to read it, but I also just downloaded the "prequel" to it and will read that one first. This author seems to have a style that works. I really liked Dante Club.

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  13. I'm not sure this one is for me but I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  14. I'm not much for historical fiction, but I really really want to read this one!

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  15. Even though it didn't totally suck you in I'm still fascinated by the story here - CANNOT wait to read this one myself!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

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  16. I read Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens earlier this year, and although I liked, I didn't love. It sounds like you had a similar reaction to this one. The facts you mention about Harvard, are really interesting!

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