by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
As Jack Faust opens, Michael Swanwick gives a good description of the scientific mentality of the period Johan Huizinga refers to as the "Waning of the Middle Ages." If there is any place Swanwick's title character deviates from the norm of the humanists who were beginning to usher in the Renaissance, it is his lack of lengthy correspondence with other, like-minded men which served as a form of primitive peer review, although Swanwick does show that Faust plays a minor role in their network.
Faust has a binary view of the accepted scientific canon. If a book contains any falsehood, it is not worth examination. Naturally, as one who espouses observation rather than conventional wisdom, Faust rejects everything which has gone before. The novel begins, accordingly, with Faust's burning of his library while debating the works' merits with his pupil, Wagner. When Wagner flees his master to find help, Faust is contacted by a composite being from an higher energy universe who calls itself "Mephistopheles."
Mephistopheles offers Faust all the knowledge the humanist wants in the hopes that mankind will abuse the knowledge to bring about its own destruction. Faust demonstrates his optimism and humanistic vision by accepting the gift with the belief that humans will be able to succesfully assimilate and integrate the new knowledge. As may be surmised, Faust is disappointed with his fellow man as both the Church and his fellow humanists ignore or deride his proclamations.
Swanwick's writing demonstrates a knowledge of the period and, perhaps, may best be compared to another recent novel, Jack Dann's The Memory Cathedral. Swanwick is aware of the Faust legend and the legend's history. Like the legend, which had its roots in Germany in the sixteenth century, Swanwick's character travels to England where he achieves his greatest fame before returning to his native land. As long as Swanwick is portraying an existant society, he is strong.
However, once Faust begins to introduce his knowledge into the world, Swanwick begins to lose speed. Instead of examining the effects of these miraculous inventions, Swanwick merely notes their existence. Although the story is almost A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court tale, Swanwick's church hardly takes a stand against Faust's innovations. Societal changes, similarly, follow those which happened in conjunction with the industrial revolution of this world. Swanwick's morality play does not take into account the changes in mentality which occurred between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century. The industrial and scientific progress he acheives does not necessarily mean there will be a rise of Anarchy or Communism as political modes.
On a personal front, the book-burning, knowledge-seeking Faust at the beginning of the novel is much more interesting and sympathetic than the Faust shown at the end, wealthy and arrogant, baiting Jews for sport. The last mentioned scene also shows a misunderstanding of one of the differences between Jews and Christians. Swanwick's Jews seem to espouse the extremely Christian doctrine of original sin. Although not a major problem, it does have an impact on the flow of the story.
Even when Swanwick does try to place Faust's societal changes into the proper mindframe, he doesn't always succeed. Although he continuously points out that Faust's lover, Gretchen, is a woman and has little legal standing and can't legally own any of the companies she helps set up, Swanwick just as constantly puts her in a highly public position of ownership of those same companies. Gretchen is brought low by one of the Medieval mindsets which Swanwick refuses to change, thereby drawing attention to the fact that he is changing everything in the Medieval culture as it suits his purposes, not in a logical manner.
Jack Faust begins as a highly innovative retelling of Johann Faust's legend. Unfortunately, Swanwick is unable to maintain the momentum which he has at the beginning and Faust's descent into ammorality loses steam along the way. Worth reading, it is not the book it had the potential of being.
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