Finished Jack Faust on Saturday (and put an Amazon link; go see what other people think of it). It’s a fast-paced book, ambitious, but not sprawling – a condensed novel of ideas, like good old fashioned SF used to be.
The premise is this: Faust is a disillusioned scholar who makes a pact with infernal beings (a civilization from another universe, actually) to gain true and complete Knowledge. They let him know everything, and in return, all they want from him is that he accepts the truth in what he learns. Even though they explain that they desire the destruction of humanity, even after they show him where this knowledge will lead, he accepts the bargain.
The begining of the book is entertaining, as Faust struggles to have his fellow scholars accept 20th Century ideas, builds a flying baloon (and skips town to avoid paying the debts on it), and generally batters his modern sensibility against the 16th Century’s plodding ways.
However things get dark, as technology fast-forwards and the main characters (Faust and his beloved) are seduced into taking more and more immoral decisions. Faust repels the Spanish Armada with rockets, speeds through France in a stolen automobile hopped up on amphetemines… It’s no realistic realization of how modern technology would affect the 16th century; Rather, it’s a parable of the 20th Century, with all its wonders and horrors. Especially its horrors.
Jack Faust is a bitter and angry tragedy wrapped with SFnal wish-fulfillment, a fast-moving plot and plenty of in-jokes (such as Faust nailing the Periodic Table to the door of a Wittenburg church).
Read it, and read other Swanwick as well: His short fiction, which made up half the Hugo nominations list this year, his dark dark Fantasy The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and his stylish cyberpunk space opera noir novella Stations of the Tide. Vaccum Flowers and In the Drift are also worth a read, but I found the former a bit of a mish-mash and the latter a bit of a downer.