The first two-thirds of the novel is set at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. At the start of the novel, the college is actually Mr. Gitney’s house (which is the size of a mansion) in Boston and the surrounding grounds. The college is a social and intellectual setting rather than a strictly physical one. That is to say, it is the way people act, speak, and dress there—with tremendous artificiality and scientific ambition—that defines the setting. The college is at once beautiful and inhumane, and both qualities stem from the same desire: intellectual ambition. This leads to witty exchanges among the college members and to training Octavian in the finest music, but also to weighing his feces and killing stray cats. All is done in the name of scientific and intellectual advancement.
Gitney’s house is decorated with paintings and scientific displays, but that is not all there is to the college, which is mobile in several ways. The college receives specimens brought via traders from the west. Visitors come to witness the scientists’ intellectual endeavors, and letters come and go from the colonies. Cassiopeia, who was born a princess in Africa, is from time to time persuaded to sing a song from her native land, bringing exotic tones to the college. Dr. 09-01 sometimes takes Octavian abroad in the city to teach him broader lessons, and when the Earl of Cheldthorpe visits, the central members of the college go out into the wilderness to better observe the transit of Venus across the sun. Finally, roughly at the novel’s midpoint, when the revolutionary violence in Boston becomes too threatening, the college moves from Mr. Gitney’s house in Boston to his brother’s house in Canaan. However, the experimental machines and inquiries come with them, so there is very little change in feeling.
Beyond the walls of the house and the confines of the college, there are glimpses of Boston during the 1770s and implications of the larger colonial society and economy. The lessons Dr. 09-01 teaches sometimes have to do with economics, and on one foray they witness a British customs inspector being tarred and feathered. The darker side of the colonies—the slave trade—is glimpsed through the occasional newspaper ad for slave sales and through Bono’s notebook, into which he pastes accounts and drawings of atrocities done to slaves. This quickly changing colonial ferment does not really come into vivid focus until Octavian runs away. Then the narrative changes, becoming fragmented (like the colonies), with little snippets of a farm, a smoke house, and eventually the Revolutionary War emerging in letters. Those later settings are richly furnished with detail, down to specifics of how surgery was done and what music was performed, but they are often bleak. The American Revolution plays out over the heads and dying bodies of the slaves.