(1997) Michael Swanwick, Millenium, £16.99, hrdbk, 336pp, ISBN 1 85798 517 6
This is, as the title suggests, a science fictional retelling of the Faust myth. Faust is still a Renaissance scholar, but Mephistopheles has become a mere voice in Faustís head, emanating from and representing an entire civilisation that has all knowledge of humanity.
Mephistophelesí bargain is simply to share this knowledge with Faust, if he will only promise to listen no matter what. Faust naturally wants to know what Mephistopheles gets out of the deal: it tells him it wants to use him as its agent of the destruction of humanity, for it is envious of the fact that our civilisation will otherwise outlive it. Faust agrees to the bargain, believing that he will be able to control the application of technology to be for the good of humanity.
The progress of the novel is inevitable: Faust brings on the Industrial Revolution and rises spectacularly in wealth, fame and power. The chapters portraying this are well-written and entertaining. There are many period touches, such as when the Dominicans ban women going on Faustís fairground big wheel lest men see up their skirts. The same is true of the chapters where Faustís achievements begin to unravel in intolerance and militarism: but the novelís most impressive feat is to disguise the seeds of Faustís damnation.
Like being sucked into a black hole, it is impossible to say where he crosses the event horizon, and so the reader is drawn along with Faustís not unsympathetic success. But the descent is increasingly quick thereafter, until you reach the crushing singularity of the final pages, where you see just how amusingly easy it is for Mephistopheles to bring Faust round to his way of thinking about humanity.
This is a superb novel about a universe in which everyone is damned. It is a Faust for our times.
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