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A Novel

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The first class at M.I.T. The last hope for a city in peril.
 
The acclaimed author of The Dante Club reinvigorates the historical thriller. Matthew Pearl’s spellbinding new novel transports readers to tumultuous nineteenth-century Boston, where the word “technology” represents a bold and frightening new concept. The fight for the future will hinge on . . .
 
THE TECHNOLOGISTS
 
Boston, 1868. The Civil War may be over but a new war has begun, one between the past and the present, tradition and technology. On a former marshy wasteland, the daring Massachusetts Institute of Technology is rising, its mission to harness science for the benefit of all and to open the doors of opportunity to everyone of merit. But in Boston Harbor a fiery cataclysm throws commerce into chaos, as ships’ instruments spin inexplicably out of control. Soon after, another mysterious catastrophe devastates the heart of the city. Is it sabotage by scientific means or Nature revolting against man’s attempt to control it?
 
The shocking disasters cast a pall over M.I.T. and provoke assaults from all sides—rival Harvard, labor unions, and a sensationalistic press. With their first graduation and the very survival of their groundbreaking college now in doubt, a band of the Institute’s best and brightest students secretly come together to save innocent lives and track down the truth, armed with ingenuity and their unique scientific training.
 
Led by “charity scholar” Marcus Mansfield, a quiet Civil War veteran and one-time machinist struggling to find his footing in rarefied Boston society, the group is rounded out by irrepressible Robert Richards, the bluest of Beacon Hill bluebloods; Edwin Hoyt, class genius; and brilliant freshman Ellen Swallow, the Institute’s lone, ostracized female student. Working against their small secret society, from within and without, are the arrayed forces of a stratified culture determined to resist change at all costs and a dark mastermind bent on the utter destruction of the city.
 
Studded with suspense and soaked in the rich historical atmosphere for which its author is renowned, The Technologists is a dazzling journey into a dangerous world not so very far from our own, as the America we know today begins to shimmer into being.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Book 1
 
Civil and Topographical Engineering
 
I
 
April 4, 1868
 
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. Some of the sailors, their bearded faces browned and peeling from too much sun, cracked the last rations of walnuts in their fists or under their boot heels, singing some ancient song about a girl left behind. After wild March winds, stormy seas, dangerous ports, backbreaking work, and all the extremes of experience, they’d be handed a good pay at port, then freed to lose it to the city’s myriad pleasures.
 
The navigator held the prow steady, his eye on his instruments, as they waited for the fog to disperse enough for their signal to be seen by the pilot boat. Although Boston Harbor stretched across seventy-five square miles, its channels had been so narrowed for purposes of defense that two large ships could not safely pass each other without the harbor pilot’s assistance.
 
The Light’s austere captain, Mr. Beal, strode the deck, his rare aura of high contentment amplified by the giddiness of his men. Beal could envision in his mind’s eye the pilot boat breaking through the fog toward them, the pilot dressed like an undertaker, saluting indifferently and relieving Beal—for once—of his burdens. Then would come the view of the stretches of docks and piers, the solid granite warehouses never quite large enough for all the foreign cargo brought in by the merchants, then beyond that the State House’s gold dome capping the horizon—the glittering cranium of the world’s smartest city.
 
In the last few years, with so many men returned from fighting the rebellion, even modest Boston merchants had become veritable industrialists, beset as they were by excess hands. This city had prided itself on its history from the time it was little more than a quaint village, but Beal was old enough to know how artificial its modern visage was. Hills that formerly sloped through the city had been flattened, their detritus used to fill in various necks and bays, the foundations for streets and new neighborhoods and wharves such as the one that soon would welcome them. He could remember when the Public Garden was plain mud marking Boston’s natural boundary.
 
A steam pipe bellowed from some unseen ship launching on its way or maybe, like them, gliding toward a journey’s end, and Beal felt a solemn comradeship with all unknown voyagers. As he glimpsed the crescent moon and thought he would soon have enough light even in this nasty fog to lay course, his pleasant reverie was broken by a bright light flashing low in the water. When the captain craned forward, a lifeboat caught in the current, right in the path of their prow, sprang out from the mist.
 
His lookout cried out while Beal seized his speaking trumpet and shouted orders to change course. A woman’s scream floated up. The schooner veered adroitly in efforts to avoid the small craft, but too late. The lifeboat’s passengers jumped for their lives as their boat split into pieces against the Light’s prow, the screaming woman thrusting a small child above the waves. To the shock of the captain, another obstacle broke through the dense curtain of fog on the schooner’s starboard side: a pleasure steamer, with its flags flying the signals of distress, and taking on water.
 
“Clear lower deck!” Beal shouted.
 
Light of the East had nowhere to go. The side of its hull grazed and then caught the stranded steamship, right through the forward bulkhead: Pipes snapped and scalding-hot steam rushed into the heavy air as the hold of the schooner was ripped open. Now it, too, took on water, fast.
 
Chaos reigned on and off the ships. Beal snapped an order to throw the cargo overboard and repeated it sharply when his men hesitated. If they didn’t unload right now, they would lose not only their profits, but also the ship and likely lives.
 
“Captain! There!” called his lookout.
 
Beal stared in astonishment from the railing as a stray breeze parted the fog. The wharf loomed ahead, but it was now clear they were approaching it from the wrong angle, parallel instead of perpendicular. Incredulously, the captain extended his spyglass. A bark flying British colors had wrecked against the tip of one of the piers and caught fire, while another schooner, marked the Gladiator, had drifted against the wharf, where its crew feverishly tried to tow it in. As he watched, fiery debris spread to the Gladiator’s sails, which an instant later were wreathed in flames.
 
At least half a dozen ships were visible in those few moments of clarity, and all were foundering in various states of distress across the once-orderly harbor, reverberating with shrieking whistles, bells, foghorns, and other desperate signals.
 
Beal frantically stumbled and slid on his way to the navigational instruments. The needle of the steering compass, held under glass by the wheel, spun around violently, as if bedeviled, while on his pocket compass the needle was 180 degrees off the mark—north was south. He’d sailed by these navigational instruments—finely tuned with the expertise of nineteen centuries—for his entire life as a seaman, and he knew there should be no way for them to fail all at once.
 
The pleasure steamer they had crashed into suddenly lurched forward with a boom. In seconds it was entirely underwater. Where it had been, a vortex opened, sucking under those already stranded in the water, and then spitting them out high into the air.
 
“To the lifeboats!” shouted Beal to his thunderstruck crew. “Find anyone alive and get as far away as you can!”
 
II
 
Charles
 
Submerged. As the waves soothed his naked body, his athletic strokes worked in concert with the rhythm of the current. The first week in April had not yet promised any warmth, the water still rather icy. But he willingly endured the chill ripping through his body for the better feeling swimming afforded him. It was a feeling of being alone but not lonely, a sense of freedom from all restrictions and control. Floating, kicking, somersaulting—try as he could to make noise, the water rendered him irrelevant.
 
Throughout his boyhood in a port town, he’d heard so many people spoken of as “lost at sea.” Now it seemed to him the strangest turn of phrase. As long as he was in the water, he could not be lost. He could bask, bathe, disappear, and the water sheltered him as much in Boston as it had back home. Not that he ever felt homesick, as some of the other Institute students did who had come from outside Boston. He still traveled the forty miles back and forth to Newburyport by train every day to keep down living expenses, although it cost him more than an hour each way.
 
To his mother and stepfather, the Institute remained a strange detour from his good position at the machine shop, and a daily interruption to his help at home. His stepfather, James, had always been unhappy, plagued by a partial deafness in his left ear that made him shun all society and friends. He worked as a night watchman for a jeweler because he preferred the solitude and uneventful nature of the position. He assumed people were speaking ill of him because he could not hear what they said, which led him to the further conclusion that city life, being loud, was an evil cacophony of deceit. As for his mother, she was a religious zealot of the old Puritan kind who saw danger in urban life and no value to the son’s studies in Boston.
 
Even now, when he was a senior, graduation a mere two and a half months away, they did not accept that he—Marcus Mansfield, of all people!—was a student at a college.
 
Marcus plunged his head back into the cool water, ears tingling as he surveyed the river—a tranquil and forgiving lane that ran between Boston and Cambridge, lined by a gentle, sloping green sward that would shade swimmers and oarsmen from the hot days to come. Unseen behind the thick weather, above the riverbank and the fields and marshes skirting it, there lurked the crowded brick and iron and gold-domed city, propelling Marcus forward with the powerful thrust of a gigantic engine.
 
At the shallow bend of the river Marcus took another big breath and sank, closing his eyes and relishing the drop. Down below, pieces of debris and lumber had lodged in the muddy riverbed. As he brushed against the foreign articles, he heard a voice beckon, distant, as though issued from the sky:
 
“Mansfield! Mansfield! We need you!”
 
Marcus bobbed up from under the water and then grabbed onto the side of a boat.
 
“Mansfield! There you are! You’re late.”
 
“How did you know I was swimming?”
 
“How did we—? Ha! Because I saw a pile of clothes back there on the shore, and who else would dare plunge into this freezing Styx!” The tall, blond oarsman dangled a suit of clothes above Marcus’s head. “Actually, it was Eddy who recognized your clothes.”

 
“Morning, Marcus,” said the second, smaller oarsman with his usual open smile.
 
“And since Eddy and I were both ready,” continued Bob, “we pushed out to find you.”
 
“Then you were early,” said Marcus, treading water toward the bank, “before I was late.”
 
“Ha! I’ll take that. Get dressed—we need our third oar.”
 
He shook himself dry on the bank and climbed into his gray trousers and light shirt. His two companions presented a study in opposites as they helped him into their boat: Bob, with the quintessential New Englander’s clear skin and crown of handsome curls, standing carelessly at the edge of the shell; Edwin Hoyt, slight and frail-looking, throwing the little weight he possessed to the other side in anticipation of a tragic drowning.
 
Despite knowing the water and boats pretty well, Marcus had not grown up indulging in such impractical pursuits as rowing for pleasure, with its arbitrary rules and catchwords. Some weeks before, Bob had announced one morning, “This is the day, fellows!” to Marcus and Edwin, their fellow Institute of Technology senior, as he bounded ahead of them on the way to a lecture.
 
“Which day?”
 
“Spring is here, Mansfield, and since it’s our last one at the college it’s time I showed you rowing just as I promised. Why, I hardly knew one end of the oar from the other until I was nine years old. A scrawny boy I was, the smallest Richards ever!” This served to emphasize what a commanding twenty-two-year-old Bob had become. Marcus could not actually recall Bob promising to teach them, but let that pass, given Bob’s enthusiasm.
 
To his surprise, Marcus found rowing not to be the wasted time he expected, and it took his mind away from worrying about the looming future away from the Institute. It was at once calming and exciting, a thrill when the shell launched across the surface of the water as though alive. They tried to recruit more oars among their classmates to join them, but the few willing candidates never did find time.
 
As their small vessel pushed steadily along, Bob began laughing to himself. “I was just thinking of my brothers,” he explained. “They used to warn me about the sea serpent of the Charles. Nearly one hundred feet long, they said, with humps like a camel and a cry like a braying donkey crossed with an elephant’s trumpeting. You know how I have to take it upon myself to investigate anything in nature. Well, for three months I searched out old Charley, until I determined that the water wouldn’t sustain a sea serpent’s diet.”
 
“But how did you know what a sea serpent ate?” Edwin asked seriously.
 
“Bob, would you mind rowing farther east today?” Marcus proposed.
 
“A quest! Where to?”
 
“I haven’t seen the harbor since . . .” Marcus did not finish his sentence.
 
“Better not to, Marcus,” Edwin said quickly. “I caught sight of it this morning after it was all over. The whole harbor was up in smoke. It was like looking into the face of a bad omen.”
 
“Eager to see the destruction?”
 
“Actually, Bob, I was hoping to learn something from seeing how they begin the repairs,” Marcus corrected him. “There is already some debris on the riverbed that must have drifted on the current.” He stopped when he saw Bob’s face narrow as he looked out on the water behind them. “What is it?”
 
“Just my luck,” Bob said. “Faster, fellows! Go! Come on, Mansfield, faster! Well rowed, Hoyt! All clear, come on!”
 
A forty-nine-foot shell had shot out of the trees sheltering a narrow adjoining channel with the speed of a lightning bolt. Six flashing oars creased the surface of the river in synchronized strokes, throwing off white streaks behind them. The rowers were bare from the waist up, with crimson handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, and their flexing muscles glistened in the strengthening sun. As Marcus peered back at them, they looked like highly educable pirates, and he knew it would be a lost cause to attempt to elude whatever this boat was.
 
“Who are they?” he marveled.
 
“Blaikie,” Bob explained as the three of them pulled as hard as they could. “His is the best Harvard six there ever was, they say. Will Blaikie—he’s the stroke oar. I’d rather stare into the mouth of the serpent.”
 
Edwin wheezed between strokes, “Blaikie . . . was . . . at Exeter . . . with Bob and me.”
 
The other vessel came on with a spurt too powerful to shake, now just a length behind.
 
“Plymouth!” cried the lantern-jawed lead rower on the lightning bolt. The boat went by theirs and then reversed and ranged alongside of them.
 
“Why, it is you, Plymouth!” said the stroke oar, Blaikie, to Bob with a gleaming smile. Even seated in his shell, he presented the particular mincing swagger of a Harvard senior. “It’s been ages. You’re not forming a randan team, are you?”
 
“We’ve been borrowing a shell from the boat club,” said Bob, motioning for his friends to stop rowing. Marcus could not remember seeing his classmate so deflated.
 
“Don’t tell me you’re still dragging your heels over at that embryo of a college, Plymouth?” Blaikie asked.
 
“We are seniors now, like you.”
 
“Tant pis pour vous,” interjected one of the Harvard boys, eliciting chuckles from the others.
 
“I fear civilizing your classmates into respectable gentlemen will take more than teaching them to grip an oar,” Blaikie went on cheerfully. “Science cannot substitute for culture, old salt. I used to agonize, Plymouth, what I would most rather be, stroke of the Harvard, president of the Christian Brethren, or First Scholar of the class. Now I know what it is to be all three.” He was reminded by one of his oarsmen not to forget president of one of the best college societies. “Yes, Smithy! But it is best not to speak of the societies to outsiders.”
 
“We are doing things far more important—things you wouldn’t begin to understand, Blaikie.”
 
“Just how many of you Technology boys are there?”
 
Throwing out his chest, Bob answered, “Fifteen men in the Class of ’68. About thirty-five in the other three classes, and we expect more than ever in the next freshman group.”
 
 

Matthew Pearl

About Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl - The Technologists

Photo © Beth Kelly

Matthew Pearl is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens. He is the editor of the Modern Library editions of Dante’s Inferno (translated by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales.
Praise

Praise

“Fascinating, mesmerizing, and richly atmospheric, The Technologists is the best yet from a true master of the historical thriller. I loved this novel.”—Joseph Finder, author of Buried Secrets and Vanished
 
“A terrific historical mystery in the fine old Arthur Conan Doyle style . . . Who knew that a mystery formed around the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could be so good? . . . There are cliffhanger endings and fortuitous escapes. . . . There are even a couple of very sweet romances.”—The Globe and Mail
 
The Technologists combines everything I love in a thriller: fascinating history, science, and a frightening mystery that demands to be solved.”—Tess Gerritsen, author of Last to Die
 
“A marvel of moving parts [with] all the twists and turns a mystery lover could ask for.”—The Washington Post
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A  Conversation Between Classmates:
ABOUT WRITING,  TECHNOLOGY, AND  MATTERS  PUGILISTIC  AND OTHERW ISE


Matthew  Pearl and Benjamin Cavell  were college classmates, but met and became friends about six years after graduating, at a photo shoot for a Boston magazine. Benjamin is a producer and writer of the FX drama Justified as well as the author of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, an award-winning collection of short stories. In honor of the technologi- cal themes of the novel, Matthew and Benjamin decided to discuss The Technologists via an online chat.

Benjamin Cavell:  Each of your  previous  books  has focused on the work  of a  particular literary  figure as  a source of or a  solution  to the various mysteries. Was it a conscious  decision  to move away from that model? Wait, now it’s telling  me you’re offline.

Matthew Pearl: No, I’m here. I just  went invisible  so nobody would interrupt us.

BC:
I meant to phrase the end of that question  better but then I rushed it because it said you disappeared.

MP: That’s fine how you have it.
 
BC: But obviously it’s conscious. I guess the question  should  be why you  decided to move away from it?

MP: I think it was more that writing  three books tied together—by lit- erary history—had at some point  become my plan, and then when that “set” was completed it was  a matter of looking  over my list of ideas and deciding what was next.  Many  of my ideas are centered around  literary history, but a number  are not, and this  one, originally  listed  in my idea document only as “MIT novel,” jumped out at me and at the few people (you included) whom I asked for input.  In some ways, it would have been easier to continue  with literary history because that had become a sort of security blanket.

BC:
Your previous   books  were  set  at  a  time  when  publishing   and American literature were entering some kind  of early modern age; this book  takes place at a moment when science (or technology) is doing the same. Is that why you chose MIT as your  setting  as opposed to Harvard, which is obviously a place you  have an association  with  and a place  that has featured in your previous work (with varying levels of significance)?

MP:
I definitely  had more connections with  Harvard  as a place,   but the idea started with  MIT  and then went from there (rather than start- ing with the history  of science). Before writing  the book, I’m not   sure I  even knew  more  than  one  or two  people who  had any  affiliation with MIT, but my removal from the place made me more interested in peeking inside  its origins. It is and was  such  a unique world in itself. Counter to the axiom, I tend to want to write  about what I don’t know. Actually, I didn’t know Harvard  would play any part in this  story  until  I started doing research and found that Harvard  and its professor Louis Agassiz were opponents  of MIT  and all  the new sciences that MIT represented.

BC: How closely does the book hew to the actual history of MIT’s founding?

MP: I don’t think I’ve ever used “hew.”

BC: I don’t think I have either  but I’ve always wanted to. The Marcus character is wholly  invented, yes? But  many of the others  are based on people who were actually in that first graduating class.

MP:
Wait, I didn’t answer the last question!

BC:
I’m expanding the question.

MP: The story  of MIT’s  founding is pretty  accurately represented, with  some of the details streamlined or simplified so not to weigh the plot or reader down. It really was this  controversial   place at the start, very  different  than what had come before it, or even what would  come after it established its foothold.
I think the academic politics  and tensions  were what got me into  the story  before the fascinating science, which  of course is splashier  mate- rial. Marcus is fictional but his circumstances  are drawn from very real people who were among the first students from the “industrial” class, while  most of the others  are historical (except Hammie).  At one point, I wanted  at least one appearance from each of the historically first gradu- ates, though  I think  by the final draft some of them were left behind.

BC:
You mention the fascinating science. How  did you come up with the various  technology-based attacks?

MP: That  was an uphill  climb. There was  a moment   early  on  when  I almost  gave up  the whole  book  because in spite  of the fact that I loved my characters, I didn’t know if I could  create attacks that were interest- ing enough. I had some help from  scientist  friends  and contacts, but most  of the ideas that made it into the final version started with the sci- entific journals  from the time period. Really  tedious to read through, then you’d come  upon   a nugget  about  an experiment or an accident buried  in there somewhere and that would  expand outward.  Dissolving the glass, for example: that was actually inspired by  a scientific journal column written  by an MIT  student about experiments they were doing there. Then  I’d build  on that and convert it into something malicious and dangerous.

BC: What  about other difficulties?  I think  people would  be interested to hear about your  main sticking points.

MP: Well, you  heard about most  of them  at the time  because I would call you for advice.

BC: True.

MP: One was how to start the novel. Do you remember we talked about that? At first,  I thought I would start with a scene of Marcus  being re- cruited while he worked at a machine shop. You had the idea that there could be an accident, some kind  of malfunction on the shop floor,  and after Marcus  shows  his  quick thinking, Rogers, the MIT founder, would recruit him  to go to the college. I started writing  that scene and still have it saved somewhere.  For some reason, the transition  felt choppy from that  to  the  “present” (i.e.,  four  or four  and a half years later, when Mar- cus is a college  senior),  so instead I started the book with the first disas- ter, and at some point  early on we flash back to Marcus  being recruited, though  no accident is involved. I used the accident idea in a classroom scene, but then ultimately  took that scene out, too. There were many things like that that you (and other trusted  readers, as well as my editor and agent, of course)  helped me with  when  I got stuck  along the way. It’s a tough part of novel writing,  trying  to get help and input,  because it’s  such   a complex, long-term  project. For example, I knew I wanted Marcus to get into  a fight so I consulted with you, since you were a boxer and are generally  more capable of being  in a fight than I am. When  was the last time you got into a real fight?

BC:
Outside  the ring?  College, I guess.

MP: Really? With another student?

BC:
Yeah, but it wasn’t terribly serious. We were messing  around and it escalated. Maybe we should  talk a little  about the war stuff.  Research,  etc.

MP: Is he still scared of you?

BC: I haven’t seen him since graduation.

MP:
I’ve never been in a fight in my life.

BC:
Why   are you interviewing   me all of a  sudden? I liked where we were headed, to the war and your  research. You’ve never actually put us into a war or a prison camp that I can remember.

MP:
Not in the same way as here. Originally, I thought Marcus would be  a war hero, but actually, I ended up having it that he never was in a battle, he is captured early on while  helping  an injured soldier. He has this insecurity, these regrets, that he wasn’t a big enough help to the war. Bob Richards  has different trauma from not having served in the war at all.

BC: And was the torture-by-technology  really used in Civil War prison camps?

MP: The details of prison-camp  life  come out of research, especially from firsthand accounts of what it was like, which generally I prefer to secondary sources. I researched many prison  camps, so some of what I say happened at Smith might have been more likely to have happened at another prison  camp, and certainly conditions like this weren’t limited to the South;  the North  had similarly awful camps. One thing that was terrific to discover, from a  storytelling  point  of view, was the use of a former   tobacco warehouse as  a prison. There would  be these tobacco presses, complex machines, not being used, and the prisoners   would start trying  to take them apart, which  I thought was a great  way to show Marcus  and Frank using and learning  engineering  while  prisoners.

BC:
Did you  exaggerate at all the general mistrust and even fear of tech- nology  that seems to pervade the world  of the technologists—or, at least, the city of Boston?

MP: I don’t think I exaggerate the fear, though of course I’m spotlight- ing it. Just as there are today, there would have been people fearful  of and other people inspired by technology, though much more in the former category, proportionally, and with  far less  understanding,  plus  more in- tense religious hesitations about changes on that front. That was impor- tant to the novel in establishing the alienated position of MIT, which is obviously  underscored by its location in a sort  of swampland of Boston.

BC:
But  do you think we have gone from that extreme mistrust  to an almost worshipfulness? I.e., that technology will  ultimately save us from ourselves.

MP:
We’ll get fearful  again, though, I think, as more of our technologies run  to their logical conclusions. I think  many of the same fears, maybe rightfully in some cases, will come back to us  about what is natural or not. For The Technologists I tried to find lots of representations of scien- tists in literature from that time. You can probably  guess what I found. That’s your  cue.

BC:
Evil? E-vil.

MP:
Well,  sometimes. Very  strange, confused, amoral, and areligious figures, for the most part. That era really is when the mad scientist figure is hammered out. Most  of those scientific characters, like Henry Jekyll and Victor Frankenstein, end up doomed in those stories.

BC: But isn’t part  of what  we’ve learned about technology/science and part of what The Technologists is ultimately  about is that technological advancement and discovery is fairly  inevitable  and that by marginalizing the scientists  themselves  we cede power to the individuals  or corpora- tions  who see the potential  and make sure they’re the only ones capable of exploiting it.

MP:
I mention in my historical note to the novel that one of my grand- father’s cousins was at Los Alamos  and was the metallurgist for some of the atomic bomb development.  I think  that additional moment of his-
tory really captures that feeling of inevitability   and grasp for  control. My relative apparently felt it would  mean the end of war forever. I don’t know  that the novel tries  to put forth  any answers but the characters believe in science, and I let them. Novelists  in the nineteenth century seemed to feel too conflicted or confused about science to allow scien- tists  as characters to keep their faith in its powers.
Ben,  thank  you  for  agreeing to  talk  about the  book  again . . . after listening to me chatter about it for so long while it was being written  and completed.

BC: You’re  very  welcome. Can’t wait to start reading  drafts of the next one.

Discussion Guides

1. A major theme of the novel is the end of the Civil War and its lasting reverberations. Discuss the impact of the war on various  characters— whether via their direct participation or through their failure to actively take part—and  how  society  was changed as a whole. Compare and con- trast Marcus  and Frank, whose wartime experiences transformed  them in vastly different ways.

2. Agnes Turner and Ellen  Swallow  both wish  to  gain  entrance  to  a world  that has traditionally  been closed  off to them,  and each faces her own set of challenges in doing so—Agnes  in breaking free from her fam- ily’s expectations,  and Ellen in the fierce ostracism she faces from her classmates. While this attitude toward women  may have been customary for the era, were there any aspects of it that particularly surprised  you? On  the other hand, what characters or trends  ran against the prevail- ing sensibilities? Did you ever feel that Agnes and Ellen   were treated unjustly within the special microcosm  represented by the Technologists society? How  might the members’ feelings toward their  female cohorts have evolved over time?

3. One reviewer called Marcus  Mansfield  “an  American archetype—the plucky  outsider” who pulled  himself  up by his bootstraps  to lead
the  charge of  technological  advancement. What  does  this say  about what it means to be an American  and, based on that, are there any other characters who might also qualify  as an “archetype”? Why or why not? How is Marcus’s situation echoed by other  elements  of the novel?

4. The clash of religion versus technology—faith versus reason—is a key conflict within  the novel. At one point, Agassiz accuses Edwin  of not believing in God  because he also sympathizes  with  Darwin’s the- ory of evolution. On a larger  scale, Tech is condemned for  not requir- ing its students  to  attend chapel—to which  Marcus  responds, “Our laboratories  are our  chapels. . . . It is not  a matter of holding  religious sentiment.” What is the significance  of Tech maintaining a  separation between the church  and the institution of education, and how might  this have enabled  its students to maintain ties to both pursuits?  Are there elements in the novel that suggest the two must  be mutually  exclusive? Does Harvard’s stressing the importance of religious practice somehow ground it in the traditional  ideals that MIT  was striving  to transcend? How  does the tension between science and religion embody some of the novel’s greater  themes?

5. The novel explores the idea that those who own technology also own power, whether that power is used for good or for evil. Similarly, it examines the fear that science will advance so quickly  that mankind will essentially become the “tools of our  tools.” Do you think this struggle for power goes hand in hand with  technological progress,  and do you see this  as still being an issue  in the twenty-first century?

6. Matthew Pearl is known for his colorful  metaphors and references. At one point, he draws  an allusion to the book of Genesis, in which we’re told there is a flaming sword placed to the east of the Garden of Eden so that mankind  would  never be allowed to enter again. Did  you make anything  of Cheshire’s deeming himself   the “avenging angel”  whose tongue is a “flaming  sword”?   Elsewhere,  did you see any significance in Frank’s Ichabod Crane sculpture and its destruction  at the hands of the Med Fac members? Were there other  metaphors  and images that you found especially resonant?

7. Several  of the characterizations  were inspired by Pearl’s research into  actual Tech students—Bob Richards  and Edwin  Hoyt  were real people, Marcus  and Hammie  are compilations  of several Tech boys, Ellen  Swallow was the first female to attend the college, and, of course, William   Barton Rogers was the original   founder,  among others.  How did these renderings inform your reading and what did you find most interesting  or unexpected  about these  individuals?  How  would you compare or contrast these students and their  world  with  today’s  aca- demic precincts?

8. Did you  find  that Marcus  had a   stronger  loyalty  to  MIT  as   a “working-class” student than those who came from more privileged up- bringings? How else did  you see the class struggle manifest, both within and outside  of Tech?

9. Were you surprised  to learn that MIT  wasn’t granted the power to present  degrees until   weeks before its first graduation,  even though  it had been seven years since the college was founded?  How  does this  co- incide with the following  claim: “Those who embrace the new sciences, who experiment forthrightly and dare search for  truth,  will be seen as harboring  secrets and dark intentions.  Science explains so much, any- thing unexplained is pinned to it.” Do you think there’s a tendency   to try to limit the boundaries  of scientific exploration, and  what  can be gained or lost  by doing so?  What  else about this  period  in education struck you?

10. Ellen tells Bob that her father has always lived by the motto, “Where any one else has been, there I can go,” to which she responds, “It was not  a bad working motto, but I like to think  adventurous spirits do what has never been done before. That is a pioneer.” Discuss how the defini- tion  of a pioneer   is exemplified throughout  the novel, both in terms of characters  and institutions. Are there any who  might  fit the bill even though their intentions  are unsavory?

11. Like  The Technologists, Matthew  Pearl’s  first three  novels—The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens—have all been
set primarily   in the vibrant milieu  of mid-  to late-nineteenth-century America. What  scenes and motifs from The Technologists were the most memorable to you,  and did  you  draw any similarities   to these prior works? The Technologists might  also be said to be somewhat  of a depar- ture from Pearl’s other  novels,  which  are all rooted in literary history. What  do you make of his transition into the realm of historical  science and education?

12. Were you surprised   when the source of the catastrophes was re- vealed? How  do you interpret  the motivation and psychological  turmoil behind it? What do you think  it is that makes some characters abuse their superior knowledge of science and technology, while others who are equally  as capable are never  tempted  to use these tools  as a means   to exert their authority?


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