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Jack Faust Michael Swanwick (Orion, £16.99, 325 pages, hardback; trade paperback also available at £9.99; September 1997. Mass market paperback published June 1998 at £5.99.).

No-one can accuse Michael Swanwick of lack of ambition: his latest novel compresses the history of the last five centuries into only a decade or so of the sixteenth century.

Let me explain...

The novel opens in sixteenth century Germany, with Magister Faust throwing his books, one by one, onto his fire: a scholar rejecting a lifetime's devotion to seeking the truth. Every one of his great books -- Ptolemy's Almagest, Aristotle's Physics, the Bible -- is fundamentally flawed. If all the greatest minds have got it wrong, then what chance does he have? He really isn't having a very good day, in short.

But then, in the depths of his despair, Faust is offered a pact with Mephistopheles, his very own devil. In earlier versions of the Faust legend, the deal was various degrees of pleasure or enlightenment in exchange for Faust's soul; Swanwick's Mephistopheles offers total understanding. Of everything.

The price? The human race will pay the price for Faust's deal with the devil: we're so corrupt that all knowledge will be turned to evil uses and we will ultimately destroy ourselves.

Is this a valid observation? Swanwick supports it by letting Faust loose with his knowledge. In a powerful and breath-taking piece of extrapolation, the author leads us through Faust's initial struggle to be heard to his vindication in an industrialised society that has been transformed by a few years of scientific and technological revelation.

If you question Swanwick's view of the inevitability that knowledge will be abused then consider our own history. As a direct result of Faust's revelations, the history of our own industrial civilisation is replayed at a furious pace. The result is pollution, poverty, greed and corruption, plus radios, motor cars and a few other nice techno-trinkets. Sound familiar?

But then, we must ask, is this fair? Authors are in a powerful position: they can selectively choose both arguments and the evidence to support or refute these arguments. When you're plucking strands from history and presenting them as fiction, the result can be deceptively convincing: "He must be right, because behind the construct we know that some of these things really did happen." Cause and effect are the tools of an author's trade, and Swanwick manipulates his tools skilfully.

In Jack Faust, Swanwick provides us with his own allegory about the dangers of knowledge. Although he tries to paint his Mephistopheles up in sf drag -- he's an alien whose race is doomed to die and who is determined to bring down any other race with a fighting chance of survival -- that's the weakest part of the story. If this alien Mephistopheles were to fail with Faust, then why would it not simply find someone else? Or someone else?

So Swanwick's Mephistopheles has to be accepted as a mere plot device -- an incubus ex machina, if you will -- which allows a grand experiment in history. To some extent this suspension of the suspension of disbelief (...) undermines the whole enterprise: the basic sf premise of the story doesn't bear too close an examination, but if we don't examine the thing closely then what's the point?

For a moment, about halfway through the book, there is a suggestion of an antithesis to Mephistopheles' equation of knowledge with destruction. Faust delivers a sermon to an increasingly shocked and outraged congregation in which he points out that logic doesn't know should or ought, but only how. You have to listen to your heart, as well, he argues.

But then it emerges that Faust was only saying this in order to get into the knickers of his landlord's daughter -- Mephistopheles has told him that this is the surest way to seduce her. Logic triumphs again.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 1 October 1997