The most important and clear thing to say about Jack Faust, the most recent novel by Michael Swanwick, is that it is, without doubt, one of the darkest and most pessimistic novels you will find within the oevre of SF. It is also an intelligent and sometime amusing look at the darker side of humanity.
Jack Faust concerns the scientist and philosopher Johannes Faustus. Studying and teaching in Germany at the turn of the 16th century he is a frustrated man: he knows that the standard authorities on academic knowledges are incorrect, but does not know what is the truth. He lusts after knowledge, is prepared to do anything for knowledge, and calls the devil to him, preparing to sell his soul for information.
But Mephistopheles does not want Faust's soul: he wants nothing less than to see humanity destroy itself, and sees in Faust the means to that end. He gives Faust what he wants, but first makes him see the inevitable results of that knowledge. But Faust believes that humanity is not necessarily doomed, and accepts the pact, receiving when he does the truth about everything: physics, astronomy, medicine, engineering and more are all clear to him and he sets about trying to discuss his new found knowledge with his peers.
But knowledge comes with a price: only in the neighboring city of Nuremburg, and only among the merchant classes, greedy for new products and profit, does Faust find any acceptance at all, and then only because he is useful to them. Mankind is not ready for the truth: it is still dominated by the church -- which loathes Faust with a vengeance -- and has not developed enough to deal with the consequences of his inventions: machines of war are more important to them than the good Faust wishes to do, and he struggles to maintain his vision. Giving him hope is the beautiful Margarete, whom he loves, but as his relationship with her falters, so too does his grip upon his creations, and his will to aid his fellow-man.
Faust is not a traditional hero: he is intelligent and talented, but extremely arrogant and almost immediately dislikable -- although at times he can be almost pitiable, given his plight: especially his relationship with Margarete. But he is also a fascinating character: driven, prepared to do anything to fulfil his vision and forever defying his inner and his very real demons. As a picture of a man reaching enlightenment, almost despite himself -- for knowledge did not equal enlightenment as Faust had believed -- it cannot be faulted.
Of the other characters, Margarete stands out: an intelligent woman prepared to defy the strictures of her time and class, Swanwick draws her particularly well and, especially nearer the end of the novel, with such truth that she is utterly believable. Margarete provides the sympathetic core that contrasts sharply with Faust, and their relationship binds together the novel. If Margarete provides the humanity in the novel, then Mephistopheles provides much of the brilliant dark humour. Forever with Faust, he irreverently comments upon and exposes all of life to his companion. It is only upon reflection that you remember that the demon's flippancy hides his dark intention.
Jack Faust is a novel brimful with dark humour, elegantly and intelligently written in an unobtrusive manner as Faust's fall is relentlessly and brutally chronicled. The plot is straightforward, and to an extent it can be predicted, but that does not detract from the novel: indeed, it is the inevitability of the outcome that gives it it's power. As you read on the tone becomes more bleak and grim, and the final pages have such force that they leave an impression long after the last page is turned. This is not a happy novel, or one to be read with the expectation of happy endings, but it is a novel that should be thoughtfully read, considered and understood.