Jack Faust Paperback – 15 Sep 1997
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The Faust myth reinterpreted for the information age. At the turn of the 16th century in the city of Wittenberg, Magister Faust is made an offer he cannot refuse by a force he cannot resist. If he accepts the offer he will know all there is to know, have answers to the mysteries of physics, astronomy and religion that have long frustated him, but if he accepts he will also be condemning the human race to inevitable death. Or so says the demon, Mephistopheles. With the sharing of demonic knowledge comes the race for ever greater technological breakthroughs - within scant years the inventions of the twentiethcentury, the atrocity machines, are ready...Mesphistopheles' vision of the end of mankind is days away - a dictator is risen and the final nuclear confrontation looms
About the Author
Michael Swanwick was born in 1950. He is recognised as one of the most powerful and consistently inventive writers of his generation. THE IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award; it was a New York Times Notable Book, as was JACK FAUST. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award more than a dozen times and won a Hugo for his SF novel STATIONS OF THE TIDE. He lives with his wife and son in Philadelphia.
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Before considering the content and themes of the novel, I really need to say just how easy and enjoyable a read it is. Its the sort of book were the pace, style and characterisation are so brilliantly done that you could cancel dates or change evening plans in order to spend the time reading. The dialogue between the characters and characterisation itself is brilliant, the author uses multiple narrators which really helps and its clear that a lot of research and thought has gone into setting the scene, establishing context, historical reference etc.
Its hard to bring to life or do justice in a single review to just how amazing an eye the author has for humanity, good, bad or mad. The book is totally littered with excellent quotable observations, anecdotes and asides which I found myself noting down for instance when the author has Mephistopheles, the devil, say "What need I for lies? The truth is ugly enough to serve my purpose" or the observation that "sorrow, loss, anger - these were as good as a bottle of the very worst gin". Sometimes these really border upon great psychological insights paraphrased or rephrased into plain spoken exchanges, such as "The unconscious mind is a tricky thing, it wants what the conscious mind cannot admit to. A man who is obsessive about his wife's fidelity, for example, might actually be acting out his desire to see her proved unfaithful".
Themeatically it is a novelisation of the Faust myth or storyline as envisaged by Goethe, in which the insatiable desire of a scholar for greater knowledge drives him into a pact with the devil. However, Swanwick succeeds in ranging across a lot of topics, including revolution, innovation, intergenerational conflict, family obligation, love and the hearts desire. The character of Faust in some ways matures before the readers very eyes, only to remain trapped within his original script again, the humanity of the characters is played out to full effect. Faust reveals being enthralled by women, Mephistopheles proceeds to use this in the demons grand design to destroy humanity which they bitterly and jealously despise, but the micro tale of Faust's growth through disillusionment is a tale indeed, rousing the sentiments of the reader. There are other stories within the story too, Faust versus the plague, inventors dreams versus worldly reality, a tale of a sailor and the devil.
It is genre hopping in some ways perhaps but I consider it to fit most neatly into either horror or sci-fi/steam punk, there are least two episodes which I thought were harrowing and horrific, one involving the devil Mephistopheles and another Faust himself, in each there is a sharp depiction of terror and pain. I literally was loath to read ahead at these points in case my worst fears would be realised, the second episode featuring Faust himself, makes him responsible some pretty nasty psychological torment and torture. In this moment he truly is the Devil himself.
The book has none of the original religious or theological trappings of the concept or literary frame of a deal with the devil, in this respect it is a little like Matheson's I Am Legend (S.F. Masterworks) which so successfully reframed the vampire mythos. I commend this to you whole heartedly, entertaining, illuminating, thought provoking and even better the second time around.