The Civil War is over and it’s a new world. One of industry and technology. One that isn’t going to be accepted without a fight.
by Matthew Pearl
read by Stephen Hoye
Random House / Random House Audio
In Boston, 1868, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is struggling for respectability, if not survival, against the anti-technological and anti-equality forces lead by conservatives and especially the traditional places of learning, like Harvard. M.I.T. isn’t just challenging how things are taught – hands on instead of theoretical – but also who gets educated, allowing those individuals identified as worthy regardless of social class or money and even women.
Marcus Mansfield, a survivor of the Civil War and factory worker is fortunate enough to be chosen as a charity scholar for the school’s first class. Although he doesn’t fit in with his peers financially or run in the same circles his leadership ability is recognized and he respect for him grows through the years at the school.
As the first class prepares to graduate a series of terror attacks utilizing technological know how rock Boston and the fears of the population are stoked against the school and those who practice what some consider to be akin to black magic. As the disasters grow in frequency and destruction, Marcus and his friends decide that if anyone can save Boston and put an end to the attacks it will have to be them because of their technological know how and will.
Pearl does such a masterful job of blending reality with unreality that I was blissfully lost in the miasma. As I read this fiction I couldn’t help but wonder how much or how little of the story was fiction. Fortunately, in the afterward the author goes into some depth explaining his references and the historicity of the story. What I can say without spoiling the story is that this is a fabulous and much better example of alternative historical fiction than the recent, and cheap, revising of historical figures as vampires or zombies or whatever. Not that I have an issue with those, should they be well written, only that they mostly are not well written.
While the use of technology to readers in 2012 may illicit a shrug and the attitudes of those against its use seem like silly superstitions, the real bad guy here according to Pearl is conservatism. While that seems like an easy, no brainer (pun intended), antagonist, it really shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Consider that much of Science Fiction are fables that warn of the advance of technology and the danger of its misuse the conservatives in a story like this one should have been written as reasonable instead of so obviously wrong, close minded, and bigoted. Add to that the fact that Pearl writes his antagonists as all of those things but also arrogant, autocratic and religious, which would read Christian since it was Boston 1868, we have a problem of bias. The problem is that Pearl uses this conflict to draw in religion and the issue of Darwinianism where they didn’t belong. Furthermore, the author lines up the issues so that religion (read Christianity since it is Boston in the 19th century) with those who are against the liberty of women, for class distinction, and against scientific inquiry – all three though find themselves extremely ill-fitting in the Christian faith and comes across to discerning people of faith as yet another attack.
I really enjoyed this book. If it seems like I was too touchy about the religion bashing consider how you would feel if you read a book you otherwise enjoyed but it went to lengths to belittle your favorite thing in the world. I doubt you would enjoy the book as well as you would have otherwise. I found that was exactly the case for me.
This is an enjoyable alternative historical novel that grabs your attention and holds it till the end. It features characters, especially Marcus, whom you will miss when the story ends. I recommend it.
A note about the audio book: Hoye does a great job with Marcus and by the end and even afterward I could still hear his Bostonian accent ringing in my ears; he became Marcus for me. Not so much the other characters, which were not as easy to differentiate audibly. Some had accents that came and went and others didn’t have accents at all. And while Hoye’s reading grew on me as it went on, it didn’t start that way. His deep, almost overbearing voice came across as a luxury car salesman reading over a commercial: crisp, slightly stand-off-ish. Not my favorite reader.
Scott Asher is the Editor-in-Chief of BookGateway.com. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people where he turns real life into stupid cartoons, writes on Christianity, Zombies, and whatever else he wants and posts Bible studies from his classes at church.
This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.