Reviews and analysis - Jack Faust

Review by Nick Gevers
(This review first appeared in Parsec, 1998)

Jack Faust
Orion Millennium (UK), 1997, trade paperback

In his fifth novel, Jack Faust, Michael Swanwick is in frenetically savage mode. Having deconstructed, inverted, and reinvented various subgenres of SF and Fantasy in his previous works, Swanwick now goes straight for SF's jugular. The resulting tale is scatologically witty, perversely meditative, and very dark indeed. It has a brimstone reek.

Jack Faust cover

Brimstone is to be expected in a retelling of the Faust legend. Jack Faust borrows and reworks elements of the Marlowe, Goethe, and Gounod versions of the story, but with a markedly scientific - and science fictional - emphasis. As is traditional, Swanwick's Faust is a scholar in early Sixteenth Century Germany, who finds the limited academic knowledge of his time superstitious and restrictive; he offers his soul to any higher power that will provide him enlightenment to awe and reform the world. But this time Mephistophiles is an alien, not a devil; and he wants, not one overweening human soul, but the destruction of the entire human race. And so he feeds Faust unlimited scientific understanding; Faust, a new Prometheus, begins a premature Industrial Revolution, forcing centuries of technological progress to occur within a few years; and nuclear Armageddon looms at the end. This is alternate history of a sort previously seen in, for example, The Difference Engine (1990) by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson: history rewritten in accelerated form, the experience of the Twentieth Century projected ironically backwards. Swanwick has mordant fun with scenarios such as a Spanish Armada composed of ironclad warships, an industrialized Tudor England, and alchemists becoming chemists in pharmaceutical concerns. But the anachronisms have bite: Renaissance features such as xenophobic militarism, economic exploitation and ecological plundering, religious intolerance, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against women are seen to have been amplified by historical 'progress'. By dragging his world forward, Faust threatens its very existence: our own dilemma, and that of Twentieth Century SF.

Faust is the quintessential American genre SF hero, familiar since the 1920s: a messianic scientific genius, a man of relentless optimistic action. In him, Swanwick sums up the defects of this 'ideal' figure: insensitivity to ordinary human concerns, hatred of anything traditional or mundane, reckless disregard of the consequences of change. In Jack Faust's love for Margarete Reinhardt, a skillfully drawn microcosm of his wider relationship with the world, the effects of these tendencies are seen: to win her, Faust unleashes his first wave of catastrophic technologies; then, when he loses her, his bitterness inspires him to the project of human extinction. This egotistical possessiveness, this lack of proper moral and social adjustment, Swanwick argues, is what underlies SF's dreams of cosmic mastery; and it can lead only to nihilism and annihilation. Faust's century is our century; we as a species have been making mistakes identical to his; SF should provide us with better role models than Faust (or Lazarus Long, or Hari Seldon, or Gilbert Gosseyn, or Paul Atreides). Like Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1973), Jack Faust is a warning, in SF's language, of the holocausts SF can help induce.

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