09 October 2012

Any sufficiently advanced technology

Science fiction / Steam punk? / History? | Matthew Pearl | The Technologists

Spring 1868, and the Institute of Technology has been set up in Boston, which will eventually become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are nineteen seniors who hope to graduate soon, and a Woman in the first year (who is hidden away in a basement and forbidden to interact with the male students; figures, they used to do things like that 150 years ago--for that matter, this is still done today in many places where they ought to know better).

Marcus Mansfield, an ex-machinist who hopes to be a 'collegey', a dream which he still doesn't believe will come true, Robert Richards, who didn't quite get into Harvard like the rest of his family, and Edwin Hoyt, who actually joined Harvard and then left as the teaching was too ossified for his tastes, team up with Ellen Swallow (over time, over time, hello, it took till almost the middle of the book for this teaming up to happen) to solve the worst catastrophes the fast-growing city faces.

It was these catastrophes which convinced me initially that this was steampunk (or maybe chemistry punk). First, ships run into each other in a fog, their compasses hopelessly fouled up. Then glass all down a street turns into vapour (yup, vapour, it melts, then vapourises, all at room temperature) and re-condenses. O-o-kay, that is not going to happen in real life, hence I conclude: fiction of the chempunk type.

The Institute is barely tolerated by a public suspicious of science and terrified of technology (I love accidental alliteration--mwahahaha!) and the police is enjoined by citizens of repute to appeal to Harvard Professor Aggasiz, a determined opponent of Darwinism and a paleontologist whose principal method of scientific enquiry is to take all possible specimens, clean them and label them. And then do nothing else.

Meanwhile in the Institute, the faculty, nervous that the Institute will be shut down because of association with the dread word Technology, passes a resolution that anyone investigating the catastrophes will be censured. Shortly after, Professor Rogers, the President of the Institute, is stricken by a stroke or heart attack, and moves out of the picture.

While at it, we are introduced to Marcus' past as a machinist in the Hammond works (the chairman of which funds Marcus' studies along with his son's), where his almost-due graduation perks up his Civil War friend, Frank's desire to be a 'collegey' too. We are introduced to other characters, too, a maid with Prof Rogers, a teenaged gofer in a bank, a Pinkerton detective, a sensible police sergeant, and assorted alchemists aka chemists with private laboratories, union leaders and citizens (pretty much low-paid extras, these last).

While our heroes are busy sneaking around, the evil genius strikes yet again, making buildings all over the city explode (I spare you the spoiler of how). Is the man with the terrible face a friend or a foe?

We are also introduced to the sheer nobility of working with technology (sorry, Technology). Our friends labour in laboratories in the basement and deduce what has caused the problems by doing things like determining which chemical compound would disperse at that speed, and then checking it for glass-melting properties; by bouncing iron in a tub of water to see how it impacts compass movements; and detect what the villain concocted by prodding their memories of the materials they saw for fleeting seconds lying on a table. Sure, you can look at something and know at a glance that it was chloride of lime (wh--?).

It's nothing short of magic, the way they work things out.

And therein lies the problem with this book. M Pearl claims in the afterword that his characters are based on real people in the Institute, including Ellen Swallow and Robert Richards, while other characters are amalgams of real people. He also, more preposterously, claims that the catastrophes described are also based on real incidents that occurred in those years. Yeah, right. A second year engineering student in the 1860s would certainly be capable of inventing a 'steam man' and a working submarine weighing 30 tons, all in his spare time on weekends. By touching a container of mysterious material and finding it cold to the touch, you can easily deduce that chloride of lime, heated (how hot and how long, too) and then powdered, and then having a couple of other chemicals added would result in instant freezing mix. And an invisible gas that is inert to brass can waft around and vapourise glass temporarily, just enough to trap people and/or chop them to bits. Well, how come we don't see this stuff around today if it is so real, then?

It's almost as unbelievable as someone saving on clothes and spending it on exotic chemicals, which, combined judiciously, can produce almost anything you need, glass-vapourising things, galvanic cells, you name it. Ellen Swallow faces bias and bullying on a daily basis, the type which I have seen in fractional form drive people away from engineering colleges in real life, and withal is a strong and sensible person, on whom all these things have zero impact. She's probably from the planet Vulcan. Nothing else can explain her preternatural abilities.

It would have been a decent chempunk novel, but for this exaggerated claim of foundational fact, and characters so exaggerated that they are caricatures or stereotypes.

I cannot bear not telling you about 'reversing electric current' so that the explosion occurs at the other end of the city--even if it's a spoiler. This is just .... aargh, spare me! stuff. There's a writer who knows zero about electricity for you.

So what is this? It's a story of magic, apprentice wizards and all, placed in the 1860s, painted hurriedly and with the cardboard below showing through, with pulp-fiction-grade 'Technology'. Many a Hollywood movie has used these tropes (weren't there several recent ones with burning trains headed into cities?), but there, special effects and fast action convince you to suspend disbelief for a few hours. Alas, my disbelief is running around screaming and ranting and pushing out of its way in peevish fashion any praise for characterisation or twists in the tale. No, no, a thousand times no, it cries.

Now, if you say it's a chempunk novel, then it's an okay read in a predictable enough fashion, suitable for impressionable mid-teens. Just don't expect those teens to become engineers later in life, though.


  1. What books make engineers? I grew up with lord of the rings and the never ending story.

    1. I grew up with Tom Swift (believe it or not), Flash Gordon comics, Star Trek on TV, and Isaac Asimov, not to mention Biggles, and Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators, and.... The seventies was a good time to think about being an engineer, if not an astronaut, when you eventually grew up.

      I think it's a matter of whether you are led to expect that you would be able to make a world-shattering explosive in the school's chem lab, or whether you use the science fiction to find out more about the world, sort of 'Hey, does that really happen?' Carl Sagan couldn't take much of sci fi, because the real world was so much cooler and far-out.

      And, sadly, today fantasy outsells science fiction many times over.