Pearl hits another one out of the gate, in my opinion, despite occasional and surprising moments of poor writing (hopefully due to an oppressive editorial deadline and not a reflection of something more serious and more permanent). I thrilled to Pearl’s usual mix of well-researched history, wrapped around a humdinger of a mystery, wrapped around several excellently-chosen social issues as relevant in the 1860s (when his story takes place) as they are today. Pearl chooses Harvard versus MIT as the symbols of two sides of the great “technology debate” in the period immediately following the Civil War and pits a Bostonian alliance of industrialists and scientists seeking technological innovation to both cheapen production costs and improve living standards against (1) unions desperate to hold onto labor’s advantage in the marketplace (2) academics wedded to fusty and outmoded ideas (3) media opposing the spread of science outside Establishment control and (4) the church. The battle for the rights of the common man—and woman—is also front and center in Pearl’s story, as defended by MIT’s far-sighted founder William Barton Rogers.
The plot is a complex one, and heroes and villains abound. Someone is using advanced science to sow chaos and destruction from Boston’s harbor to its financial center to its industry. The casualties are mounting, and the police investigation has been placed into the hands of the famed naturalist Professor Louis Agassiz, a died-in-the-wool Harvardian and violent opponent of the fledgling Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Indeed, MIT and its first class of 15 seniors—including working-class “charity scholars”—are facing charges of fomenting the disasters with their allegedly “atheistic” and “Darwinian” defense of “unrestricted science.” It falls to The Technologists, a secret club formed of three MIT seniors and the college’s one female student, to sleuth out the science behind the disasters, anticipate and prevent the next disaster, and uncover the culprit whom they have dubbed “The Experimenter.” As is often the case in his novels, Pearl leads his heroes—and the reader—to uncover one potential villain after another, only to discover in the end that the real “Experimenter” is the least expected character in the book.
Along the way, Pearl—himself a graduate of Harvard–fascinates us with real science and real history. Real-life experiments in chemistry, botany, physics, architecture, and mechanical engineering are scattered throughout the novel, and are skillfully made integral to the plot itself. MIT’s Rogers and Harvard’s Agassiz are not only characters in The Technologists but were prominent figures of their time. Pioneering female scientist and graduate of MIT’s first class Ellen Swallow, along with her husband Robert Hallowell Richards, play prominent and delightfully heroic roles in Pearl’s story. Pearl dips repeatedly into Civil War history to paint a backdrop for some of the developments in his novel, and captures to a tee the social bigotry that festered in the big urban centers of the United States at the time.
While the centerpiece of Pearl’s story—the race against time to stop “The Experimenter” before all of Boston is demolished—is pure melodrama, The Technologists is a fascinating exploration of many of the social issues of the time and brought to this reader’s mind, at least, the ongoing debate today within the scientific community, the media, politicians, and the public over whether our world should invest in space exploration, nuclear fusion, stem cell research, and similar leading-edge technologies, or retreat out of fear and prejudice.