The German legend of Johann Georg Faust has been reworked and revisioned multiple, multiple times over the centuries. From Goethe to Bulgakov, deals with the devil leading to one’s loftiest desires are abound. Contemporary writers likewise throwing their hat in the ring, in 1997 Michael Swanwick delivered Jack Faust. Running with the legend’s roots but taking a societal rather than personal approach, Faust is tormented by the world’s knowledge, but he is not the only one…
Opening on a familiar note, Johann Faust begins the story burning the books in his library. Declaring the majority of written knowledge to be rubbish, he frightens his assistance Wagner with his antics. Soon enough Faust is contacted by a demon from another galaxy calling himself Mephistopheles, and made an offer: all the knowledge in the world, no strings attached. Believing in the quality of his fellow human beings and that the knowledge will be used for good, Faust accepts the offer, all the while Mephistopheles secretly assumes it will lead to humanity’s downfall. Turns out, both can somehow be right.
A fire crackling along the spine of Jack Faust, the novel very well may be Swanwick’s best from a prose perspective. And the advantages link together: dynamic word flow complements the dynamic changes which Faust’s pact brings to the world. The vigorous approach likewise leads to some comically harried scenes, several which are laugh-out-loud funny. (That with the philosophers defending staid but flawed Greek idealism brings a smile, ear to ear.) At the same time, plot momentum slowly loses steam. Shifting too much focus to Gretchen (Faust’s object of female desire) and getting caught in a veritable milieu of technological advances, what started as a razor sharp narrative dulls itself in time by spreading itself a little too much. The conclusion does bring a new edge to the blade, defining Swanwick’s agenda in the process, but lacks the blood it could have drawn were the cut continuous from head to toe.
In the end, Jack Faust is a quality reinterpretation of the classic German legend that opens with fire and brimstone, coasts through the mid and late game, only to regain some of its flame for the grand conclusion. (The final scenes remind the reader of the power of the opening scenes.) Pure humanism, Swanwick cautions against excess, even in the abstract sense of knowledge and science. I still believe The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel to be Swanwick’s best novels, but Jack Faust is for sure a worthwhile read that strengthens any argument Swanwick is one of the best fantasists working today.