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.
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.
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?