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The Technologists (with bonus short story The Professor’s Assassin) Reader’s Guide

By Matthew Pearl

The Technologists (with bonus short story The Professor's Assassin) by Matthew Pearl


A  Conversation Between Classmates:

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.

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.

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)?

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.

Wait, I didn’t answer the last question!

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.

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?

Outside  the ring?  College, I guess.

MP: Really? With another student?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Evil? E-vil.

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.

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.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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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