I Always Suspected Edison Was The Devil

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Alasdair saunters back into his comfort zone with Jack Faust.
I've been having something of a crummy month lately, so I've decided to sit down and babble a bit about an old favorite of mine. It's a book I rather crudely reviewed on another site a few years ago which is in sore need of a second look from my smarter future self. It's one of my comfort books, one I can always read a few passages from and just start feeling better.

It's also a book that ends in the implied nuclear annihilation of the human race.

So...yeah...I'm strange.

Anyway, as some of you keener readers may have already deduced, Michael Swanwick's Jack Faust is a retelling of the old German legend of Doctor Faust, the bloke who sold his soul to the devil for some magic powers, lived it up, fell in love with a sweet innocent girl named Gretchen, and was either redeemed by his love or sent straight to hell, depending on how much of a romantic the author was. For the first chapter Jack Faust stays in the traditional territory of the legend, opening in the German town of Wittenberg at the dawn of the sixteenth century, with Faust putting his library to the torch. Angered by the inconsistencies and logical fallacies of the established authorities of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and the Bible, Faust declares their works to be little more than a pack of lies worthy only of destruction. In a rage, he opens himself to the unknowable, calling for any unseen force to manifest itself and deliver the knowledge the everyday world denies him. Naturally, his summons is answered.

However, it is with the arrival of Mephistopheles that the novel shifts away from the Christian morality play of the traditional story and into a classically sci-fi setting. For the Mephistopheles that appears before Faust is not an agent of Satan, but an construct operated by an alien civilization from another universe. While this race has succeeded in charting and codifying all avenues of scientific and technological exploration, they are nonetheless trapped in their cosmos, a temporally-accelerated high-energy realm that nothing, save information, can escape. With their universe's physical parameters essentially dooming them to an early extinction, they naturally despise the doltish human race that will survive long after them (Proof, if any more were needed, that the Singularity makes you a giant asshole). To this end, Mephistopheles offers Faust access to infinite knowledge, in the hopes that he will use this knowledge to drive mankind into premature obliteration. Still, being the fair-minded sort of omnicidal extradimensional entity, Mephistopheles lays no conditions upon Faust beyond the command to always listen to what he has to say, and to acknowledge the consequences of the knowledge he has gained, a point driven home with a brief vision of Auschwitz. Despite this, Faust maintain his belief in humanity's capacity to better itself, and he accepts Mephistopheles' help.

What follows in the rest of the novel are four linked sequences, each chronicling some aspect of Faust's efforts to use his knowledge to remake the world. The first sequence shows his evolution into a sort of failed Galileo; initially using his newfound knowledge to user in a scientific revolution, he quickly discovers that no one is terribly interested in what he has to sell. His rejection of the Aristotlean method alienates his fellow scholars, and his attempts to wow the populace with a prototypical hot-air balloon merely results in the wrath of angry creditors. It is only with his escape from Wittenberg and his arrival in the bustling trade center of Nuremberg that Faust's career takes off. Burnt by the rejection of his peers, he rejects the persona of Galileo for that of Edison and turns to the practical arts, forsaking scholarship for mechanical innovation, and learning the fine art of persuasion from Mephistopheles. He also comes across Margarete Reinhart, the intelligent and naive merchant's daughter who Faust pursues with a mixture of devotion and intentionally creepy manipulation. All the while his inventions and ideas transform her father's business into a major industrial concern and Nuremberg itself into a bustling center of innovation. In due course, the implications of his innovations grow too large for any one man to control, and the course of both their lives (and that of Europe as a whole) rapidly evolves beyond what anyone in the story could have anticipated.

Genre Argle Bargle

One of the problems I've had in the past with Jack Faust has been in trying to figure out just what the hell it is supposed to be. With its focus on a material universe, it is science fiction, but what kind of story is it? There's this sense of unreality that permeates the story, an sense that most of the events are authorial contrivance than logical evolutions of plot. Fleshed-out characters like Faust and Margarete (who, in this rendition, is given her own tragic narrative arc to contrast with Faust's) are led by the nose by a Mephistopheles that, despite his background, is little more that a personification of sarcastic hatred, resembling nothing so much as the dragon Melanchthon from The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Faust's effects on Europe also draw comment; while Western scientific and industrial methods are certainly very impressive, there's something deeply odd about seeing Renaissance Europe fast-forwarded three centuries in the space of two decades. It could be called alternate history, but the hyperacceleration of technological progress and the seeming absence of events and personages from the period make that designation unsteady. You couldn't even call it steampunk; all of Faust's inventions are far more mundane and realistic that what you'd typically expect to see, and most bear far more of the grime and hard-edged practicality of the early 20th century than mainstream steampunk is comfortable with.

Perhaps the best way to think of Jack Faust is, not as a novel, but a fable, an allegory of this world and this great engine of Progress we've been riding for centuries now, a great grotesque caricature of the human condition and of our folly, a tale of how our flaws get the better of us and damn us without our slightest realization.

A World of Juxtapositions

But enough of this blather about genre; I've never studied it enough to say anything clever about it. Let us talk instead about modernity.

Before we begin, I'd like you all to take a look at this picture just below:

This is a bit of concept art for War of the Worlds: Goliath, an animated movie about a second war between H. G. Wells' Martians and humanity in 1915 that Heavy Metal magazine's been working on for a few years now. Most of the art is full of the usual steampunk chichanery, but it was this picture, this sketch of Manhattan island with a spaceport bolted on its southern shoreline that fascinated me.

I mean, just imagine yourself as a young man, fresh off the farm in the backwoods of wherever, Ohio, where they're still arguing about this newfangled "compulsory elementary school" idea, when you step off the train and are hit with that skyline, with a megaopolis that seems to be spasming between an affluent industry you can just barely imagine becoming a part of, and a hypertropic neo-space-age filled with college-educated men and women pondering unfathomable things. How could you make sense of this city? Could you make sense of this city? Can the riddle of its existence ever be solved, or can you just ride it and hope for the best?

It's this idea, this sense of unfathomable modernity meeting with, crushing, and warping the past, that keeps me interested in the idea of steampunk. While most of that genre/canon-division-thingy is content to putter around with ribald adventures tales, the better books occasionally offer peeks into this condition. The Difference Engine is probably one of the better examples of this, with its depiction of a Rationalist London resembling the unholy love child of Joseph Paxton, Baron Haussmann, and George Orwell.

It is this attitude that drives Jack Faust. The first hints of it are fairly innocuous and are generally played for laughs, with a local quack making a great show of his "cures" of bloodletting and enemas while a comatose Faust babbles about black-body radiation and the adrenal gland, or with a local merchant's guild trying to puzzle out the meaning of a "joint-stock company." However, it is in the third section of the book, with Faust's exile to London as England's resident Henry Ford and Margarete's ascension to CEO of her father's enterprises that this theme comes to the fore. By the middle of the century, Europe is an insane place, a 20th century superstructure bolted onto an increasingly shaky post-medieval base. A place where women can, with some legal finagling, run multinational corporations but who are subject to vicious prohibitions against abortion. A place where a pompous priest can transform himself into a right-wing talk radio host in a matter of years. It's a place where the Battle of Gravelines is recast as a duel between Spanish ironclads and English missile cruisers over a bad loan, where the dicta of absolute war hold sway. It is a hard, vicious world, were men dress in black and strive to become that pinnacle of modernity, the "Faustian Man."

It's a surreality that's further enhanced by the way Swanwick structures his settings. In the early sections of the book, we get nice little snapshots of life in and around both Wittenberg and Nuremberg as we see how people life their lives in these towns. However, as the story progresses, the worlds become increasingly more claustrophobic and fantastic. Industrialized Tudor London seems to be nothing but an endless maze of factories and tenements, while Nuremberg shrinks to Margarete's corporate HQ. In the final section of the book, the world becomes almost entirely hallucinatory, centering on the tenuous psyche of Faust as he takes a final road trip through a disintegrating France.

While I had a little trouble with this gradual decay of setting in previous readings, I have come to see it as perfect for the book. After all, one of the prevailing themes of modernism (however you want to define it) is that a fundamental break has been made with tradition, with the past, and that there is no real way to reestablish that link in a way that isn't fundamentally false on some level. With all established wisdom in doubt, and with the pace of change making it harder to hold any beliefs for long, all you can do is look to yourself for guidance. Unfortunately, as Jack Faust illustrates, the problem with relying on yourself is that your conscience is, at heart, a light taskmaster.

Painfully Adrift In The Modern World

It's a theme that drives the arcs of both Faust and Margarete. With Faust, the drive to modernity pushes him to greater levels of misanthropy and cruelty. A large part is due to Mephistopheles' influence, which Faust never seems to interpret as baleful (then again, the traditional Faust was foolish enough to make a pact with demons, so perhaps this is just playing to type). However, Faust's gifts do their part to contribute to his decline, particularly with his recurring discovery that not only does every man have their price, but their price is absurdly low. If you know everything about everyone, you can manipulate everyone, and eventually they'll stop being people and become widgets to be tuned, installed, and replaced as the situation warrants.

It's an attitude that extends to Faust's relationship with Margarete. While there does seem to be a spark of mutual affection between the two, it's a relationship that's marked by Faust's constant stage-managing, care of Mephistopheles. As the novel progresses, Margarete grows into a deeply tragic figure; an clever woman, cursed by her love of a man she only subconsciously suspects of manipulating her, trying to adjust to a world evolving by decades every second. While she does come to a sad end, it is a sort of final protest, a final liberation from the bonds Faust placed on her and humanity.

The Sleep of Reason, and So Such

In the end, Jack Faust is a nasty little fable of modernity. It combines modern technology with the past to highlight the follies of our modern world, and depicts the fall of a world, not by the introduction of any outside evil, but the nourishment of human flaws with technology and self-absorption. It is a story where we are the makers of our own destruction, and it's hard to argue that we did not deserve what we get.

And somehow this makes me feel better...

Well, I am strange.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 12:00 on 2010-11-21
I've been privately keeping track of how many times you confess to being strange per article - this one is currently winning ;)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 19:27 on 2010-11-21
Well, you know how it is: you join a ezine whose members are all in another country, you don't contribute as much to the conversation as you'd like, you start to think it's your own fault, the old inferiority complex kicks in, and so on and so forth.

But, yeah, I suppose I'm as not as weird as I think I am. Thanks for pointing that out. It's nice to be reminded of that every so often.
Wardog at 19:41 on 2010-11-21
Awww, I'm sorry, I was only teasing, I feel guilty now! :(
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 20:42 on 2010-11-21
No, no, it's all right. I'd much rather have someone point this sort of thing out than let it pass without comment.

Anyway, the important thing is to read this book. It's a nice antidote to the straight adventure setup of steampunk (though I hesitate to label it as such, since it's a whole bunch of things at once).
Wardog at 21:06 on 2010-11-21
It was genuinely just a joke, not a smug way of pointing out a stylistic tic. I'm sorry, I must stop drinking in the afternoon... ;)
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