Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “technology”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #31: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

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.


rusha24’s #CBR4 Review #2: How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

As a big fan of Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, particularly The Corrections and Freedom, I was happy to receive his book of essays How To Be Alone for christmas from a good friend. The dozen or so pieces are collected from his previously published work in places like The New Yorker and Harper’s, most of them from the mid 90s. This time-frame is evident in a present reading of the book, as some of the essays have held up better than others. He hits the same subjects over and over–television’s assault on our imagination, technological encroachment on our human psyches, essentially, how to survive as a reader or writer in a ubiquitous cyber culture–and while he succeeds more often than not, Franzen too frequently comes off sounding downright solipsistic. Which is understandable, considering this is first-person journalism, but it runs the risk of smugness–the very critique his fiction most frequently draws. The bottom line however, is that Franzen can fucking write, and his dazzling prose and often profound insights into the preservation of a colony of readers and writers are worth the read, perhaps now more than ever.

Franzen is at his best in this collection when he’s most personal. Probably intentionally, the piece that opens the book is “My Father’s Brain,” a very intimate and moving portrait of Franzen’s father’s descent at the hands of Alzheimer’s. Around the central story, a son’s retelling of his father’s fight for dignity, Franzen manages to weave in musings on memory, on parents, on the struggle to retain one’s self in the face of dementia. Contrasted to this type of personal vulnerability, the essays on Chicago’s postal service and the evolution of America’s big cities read as book reports–sharp, witty, and critically aware, but somehow less compelling.

The longest piece is titled “Why Bother?”–a new name for a famously talked-about essay originally known as “The Harper’s Essay,” in which Franzen essentially assessed the health and prognosis of the American Novel. Appearing in this collection significantly cut and edited, the essay is still just as provocative as the first time around. While he so passionately attacks social atomization via cyber culture and admirably argues for the preservation of genuine community through reading, Franzen’s own position within the canon he desperately wishes to preserve makes it hard to take what he says completely at face value. Similarly, in a deeply personal essay about maintaining privacy, he sometimes seems contradictory. But throughout the book, Franzen’s voice is exhilarating in its plea for our engagement in social criticism. To some, he’ll reek of elitism, but it’s a risk worth taking if it compels you to think about what it means to be a reader in today’s world.

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