Taking as his canvas the classic tale of the temptation of Faust—made famous by such literary luminaries as Goethe, Marlowe, and Mann—author Michael Swanwick paints a fresh vision of the dangers posed by the pursuit of knowledge. Set in Old World Germany, this tale of science and damnation begins with the great scholar Dr. Johannes Faust burning his books, having concluded that all his knowledge is nothing compared to the vast sea of ignorance surrounding him. Out of his despair, he inadvertently summons the tempter spirit, Mephistopheles, who is the projection of a dying alien race determined to make the destruction of humankind its final deed. Their weapon is knowledge—of science and technology, the mechanics of flight, the nature of the atom, and the secrets of economics.
When, in an act of defiance, Faust nails the Periodic Table of the Elements to a church door in Wittenberg, he ushers in a golden age of prosperity for Germany that will make him the most powerful man in the world. But the love of the beautiful Margarete will be his downfall. What happens when the greed for knowledge and glory goes unchecked? Has a demon ever made a bad deal yet?
Nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the British Science Fiction Award, Jack Faust is a masterful retelling of legend by one of science fiction’s finest craftsmen.
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By Michael Swanwick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Michael Swanwick
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Wittenberg at the birth of the century was a microcosm of the human world, a walled and fortified city of six thousand souls, twice that when the university was in session, an island by virtue of moats and the Elbe, smugly ignorant of all that lay beyond the town walls, as wicked, crowded, and devout a place as any on Earth, and as ripe with life as an old pear that sloshes when shaken. It ran by magic. All crafts and professions were simple compilations of formulae and rituals, not because these methods had been investigated and proved effective, but because they had been so taught by elders who had in turn learned from their elders in an unbroken line of authority reaching back to Antiquity. Exhausted mines were sealed to give gold and diamonds the time to grow back. Mares could be impregnated without stallions — so said conventional wisdom — by presenting their haunches to a steady west wind. Nothing new had been discovered in living memory. Nothing was truly understood.
There was a castle to one end of the town, two monasteries to the other, and a cathedral in its center. Church bells tolled the canonical hours — matins, prime, tierce, sext, nones, and vespers — six times a day. These hours varied in length with the waxing and waning of the seasons, but nobody kept strict schedules anyway. More precise measurements were not needed. The Elector's soldiers protected the city from the armies of foreign states, duchies and principalities, ecclesiastical holdings, free imperial cities, margraviates and landgraviates, baronies, and other independent powers — of which the weak and hopelessly divided Empire had somewhere between two hundred and two thousand, depending on who was doing the counting. The Augustinians provided the core faculty for the university, and the Dominicans saw to the propagation of the faith and the salvation of its congregants.
Land within the walls was unspeakably valuable and therefore overbuilt. Houses shouldered each other across narrow streets. Balconies and extensions were built from the upper floors, competing for air and sunshine like trees in the Black Forest. Attic windows almost touched, making it possible for many an adulterer to crawl out one and into his lady love's opposite. There were alleys so overhung with additions they were almost tunnels and light touched the cobblestones only at noon when the sun shone straight down between rival eaves.
The city stank at the best of times and festered in the summer heat. Every occupation — tanner, baker, dyer, knacker — had its own distinctive smell. A student for a bet had once made his way blindfolded through the labyrinthine passages from Rostockgate to Coswiggate guided by his nose alone. Slops were thrown from the windows, and the sewers ran down the middle of the streets. Rain and the river took care of all garbage.
Most houses were wooden, and even stone buildings had oak frames and walnut floors, thick planks dead for centuries and drier than dust at the heart. The grander houses had wooden shingles and the poorer thatch. Stables were crammed with straw and hay. Warehouses were stuffed with English wool, Russian furs, and silks from the Orient; with cooking oil, varnish, turpentine, and pitch; with bushels of saffron and corn and salt fish; with candles by the gross; and above all (for Wittenberg was famed for its booksellers) with reams beyond counting of paper waiting to be made into broadsides, Bibles, almanacs, brochures, treatises, manifestoes, breviaries, account books, and Latin grammars.
Within this steep-roofed mountain of dried and seasoned wood, the citizenry was as snug and content as a colony of mice in a pile of brushwood, neither knowing nor caring that it had been heaped up to serve as the midsummer bonfire. The granaries were full, the craftsmen, innkeepers, and three-penny merchants prosperous, every burgher fat and surrounded by children, every wife pregnant yet again. They were not aware of the madness that lurked within their own minds.
For at the height of this endless August an irrational discontent possessed the city, as darkly inexpressible as the revulsion that touches a drunken soldier just before he torches the house and barn of a peasant suspected of holding back food for his own use. All of Wittenberg was in a doze, caught in a pleasant suicidal fantasy of the spark that would come to liberate its timbers into explosive fire. The citizens twisted, moaned, and writhed in their sleep, yearning for the broom of flame that would sweep clean the fetid streets of the garbage and accumulated obligations of the past. The very buildings themselves dreamed of holocaust.
From one lone chimney in the heart of the city, a wisp of smoke curled up into the heartbreakingly blue sky.
Faust was burning his books.
With a shower of sparks, Thomas Aquinas was consigned to the flames. Pages fluttering, a slim manuscript book of extracts from Pythagoras — which Faust had held for half his lifetime against that happy day he finally encountered a complete Works — flew into the fire. Bouncing from the blackened back of the hearth, Andreas Libavius's Alchymia entered that mystical alembic which would transform its gross substance into the rarefied purity of its component elements.
Faust worked systematically, condemning no book without a hearing, riffling through each text until he found a demonstrable lie, and then tossing it atop its dying brothers. Half his library was in the fireplace already, so many volumes that they threatened to choke the flames. A touch of wind coming down the chimney filled the room with the stench of burning paper and leather. The smoke made his eyes sting. Calmly, he gathered together another armful.
All his life he had devoted to these detestable objects, and in return they had done nothing but suck all the juice and certainty from him. They were leeches of the intellect. If there was a true word to be found in any of them, then it was surrounded by a hundred indistinguishable lies. To possess one simple truth, he must accept an Alexandria of nonsense into his brain. These piously regarded falsehoods had for long years crushed his head in the book-press of scholarship, squeezing all hopes and ambitions from him, leaving nothing but a dry, empty husk.
From boyhood, all his passion had been for knowledge. He had ached to hold within him the compass of all lore and learning, to read the book of Nature and so comprehend the mind of its Creator, to be that more-than-mortal man, that Magister Mirabilis who would synthesize and reveal all, and so raise Mankind from the muck of superstition, disease, and ignorance, easing human misery and undoing the curse of toil, filling the nations with clean white cities and joining all in a single commonwealth under one king and that king Reason itself.
Too late, he saw his ambitions for the folly they were. His youth and money were gone and he had nothing to show for them. Nothing but books, books, books ...
"God damn you," he whispered.
The room swam in the heat and for an instant he saw the slim white tapers of his father's funeral wavering like beeches through the drowning waters of the Mediterranean. He saw swans rising from the serene lake of his childhood, and it seemed to him that the past was a garden from which he had been expelled and which he could never regain.
At that moment Wagner appeared in the doorway, yawning and pasty-faced in his cotton nightgown, though it was late afternoon. He rubbed his eyes against sleep and the fumes, and then gawped like a fish as he came suddenly awake.
"Magister!" Waving horrified arms, he advanced into the smoke. "What are you doing?"
Faust extracted a volume of Galen from his armful, letting the rest spill to the floor. He waved the Greek physician under the young man's nose. "Have you ever cut open a human body, Wagner?"
"Before Jesu, never!"
"If you had — if you had ... I served for a time as a physician in the Polish army. So much sickness, and so rarely did my medicines work! During the campaigns against the Turk, I stitched up wounds and sawed off legs by the hundreds. So this elaborate horror you show for the sanctity of the dead is quite incomprehensible to me. How can it be moral to gaze upon the shattered organs of living men, knowing you can do nothing for them, but sinful to look at the undamaged organs of those who no longer suffer pain? I assure you there is more horror in cutting open a body when it can still scream.
"Thus I began a series of investigations into the origins of disease. I quickly found that there were organs described by our good friend Claudius Galen that are not to be found in human beings at all. Why? Because in his priggish regard for the sanctity of man, the old fraud examined instead the insides of butchered pigs, from which he extrapolated a similar anatomy for the human body. Pigs! For thirteen hundred years we have doctored the sick as if they were swine, and all on the word of one who could be disproved by any idiot with a knife and a corpse."
"Speak not so of Galen, sir! Not of that greatest of anatomists, that divinely inspired father of physicians, that —"
"Father of lies, you mean." Faust clutched the Galen so tightly his knuckles turned white. "Here is another perjurer who will not mislead one more honest man!"
He skimmed the book into the flames.
With a cry, Wagner ran toward the fireplace. He was buffeted back by the scholar, who then seized his arms and grinned wildly into his face. "The world is better off without such quacks, bleeders, apothecaries, and barbers — let us go to witch-women and root-gatherers instead. Or, better, let us not go at all." Thrusting Wagner back disdainfully, he seized another book. "Ahh, now here is a treasure, Averroës's Commentaries on Aristotle in a tolerable translation from the Arabic by Gerard of Cremona." He lasciviously stroked the red leather boards, knowing well how his pupil ached for the chance to pore through it. "A liar's gloss on a liar's lies. Surely this is a rare criminal."
He cocked his arm.
Desperately, Wagner said, "Sir, please consider! These books are of value, Magister, of monetary value if nothing else."
Faust stopped, looked down at the younger man. "How old are you, Herr Wagner?"
"Seventeen years, Magister."
"Four years, then, you have studied the trivium — grammar and rhetoric and logic — things which are of no value in themselves save that they order and organize human thought in order to facilitate further learning. And what have you learned?"
"Great things, Magister."
"Nothing! Why can a bird fly and a man not? What star or curse or vapor causes plagues? What monsters live within the ocean's lightless depths? What makes the sky blue? These are questions a child might ask, and yet you cannot answer me."
"No man can."
"Exactly." He chucked the book into the flames, ignoring the sound that burst from Wagner's throat like the cry of a small bird. "All these books and a thousand more I have read, traveling great distances at times to win the privilege, and they, the accumulated wisdom of the ages, can help me answer none of them." He reached for a folio book bound in tooled kid with gilt tracery, Ptolemy's masterwork, the Almagest. But before he could firmly grasp the volume, Wagner had wildly flung himself forward and wrestled it away. "Give me that!"
Hugging the Almagest to his chest, Wagner cried, "Hear me out! For three years, master, I have gone every night to make your measurements, out to the Roman tower in Spisser's Wood. Have I not? I have been your poodle, your loyal ferret, your most obedient servant. In rain and snow I have gone, against the chance the weather would break. And when the weather was clear, I climbed to the broken top of the tower and there with instruments of your own devising, with torquetum and cross-staff and sighting tubes with spider-silk grids, made measures more perfect than any man had before —"
"The measurements." Faust laughed bitterly. "For two sleepless days and nights I have struggled to make sense of them. All orbits must be circles, so says Ptolemy, for just as all things sub lunae are imperfect so must all realms beyond be perfect, and the circle, being infinite, is perfection itself. Cycles and epicycles, deferents, equants, and eccentric spheres of ethereal crystal have I plotted, and all in vain. The discrepancies between what is and what ought to be still remain. Where measurement is perfected, the variance revealed is greater than before. Every correction requires yet more subtle corrections. It is as if the planets did not revolve about the Earth at all. But if not, then ... what? Their paths are regular enough that there must be meaning in them. Yet the more I try to impose reason upon the unruly universe, the further it moves from comprehension. It is this nut I have been trying to crack with my forehead until my poor skull is bruised and shattered and black." He clutched his head, swaying.
"The notes!" Wagner cried in sudden dread. "Where are they?"
For a long moment Faust glowered at his junior with glittering and sardonic eye, like a magician staring down his fascinated audience prior to pulling some fantastic illusion from his sleeve. With slow deliberation, he said, "Fool! How do you think I started the fire?"
"Oh," Wagner said. It was the softest of sounds, almost a sigh. He sank to his knees, still hugging the Ptolemy, and began to rock gently on the floor.
"Stand up!" Seizing the youth by the roots of his hair, Faust hauled him to his feet. "If you wish to save these books, these oh- so-precious books, why then, I will let you try."
Wagner looked up with tear-stained face. "Sir?"
"We will debate, you and I, whether these books deserve to exist. Surely this is fair, for if the truth is on your side, no amount of oratorical trickery can prevail. Should I win, let the flames of damnation take them! Should you win ..." He hesitated, as if thinking. "Should you win ... Why, then my library is yours."
Wagner's eyes grew wide with astonishment, all horror, all fear wiped clean in this instant of greed and wonder. "Agreed!" he gasped.
"Before we begin, though, let us limit the terms of our argument. All the breath in your body could not begin to defend every book page by page. So we must choose an epitomal selection to debate. Now, what are the three legs of learning — eh? The three legs upon which all else depends?"
"The — the trivium, Magister, rhetoric and logic and ..."
"No, no, no! All the material world consists of that which is beyond our touch, that which can be examined, and ultimately upon that which can be determined by the study of these things of the reasoning of their Creator — which is to say the realms of astronomy, physics, and teleology. Would you agree?"
"Who could deny it, master?"
"And the three books from which we derive all our lore and learning on these matters — surely you can name them? No? There in your arms lies the Almagest. All other works on astronomy are mere gloss and corruption. So much for the cataloguing of existence. Here" — he slammed a second volume, as great as the first, though less expensively bound, on top of the Ptolemy — "is Aristotle's Physics, and that accounts for your mechanics. Which leaves the design of physical existence. For which we proffer ...?"
With a sudden wrenching motion, he turned and seized two black folios from the wall; gripping each by their bottoms, he stood spraddle-legged, in the posture of Moses with the tablets. "My grandfather published this Bible in old and new testaments in Mainz, long before I was born. What finer prize could I offer?"
Wagner staggered as they were slammed into his arms.
"Now! Three works in four volumes, the round world contained in a squared triangle. Let us contend."
"I stand ready."
"Bravely said. There are, as William of Ockham has asserted, three sure sources of knowledge: the self-evident, experience, and Scriptural revelation. Would you agree?"
"That is beyond denial."
"We shall then begin with the Almagest. Ptolemy himself has said that astronomy is a form of mathematics. Hence it is a perfect exemplar of the self-evident. If there is a single flaw in an equation, the whole is necessarily wrong. Which being so, your measurements by themselves discredit him."
Eyes shining, Wagner said, "Not so! For Ptolemy's observations have stood the test of time. Whereas my own could easily be flawed by reason of weariness or some lenticular effect of the atmosphere or some other cause beyond the capacity of my imagination to comprehend."
"Surely, however, reason can correct any lack in your perceptions even as ground lenses can correct a weakness in optical vision."
Wagner licked his lips. "But if the organ of rational thought be imperfect — as what man's is not? — then it can no more apply the logic of its own correction than a man may touch his elbow with the hand of that same arm."
Excerpted from Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick. Copyright © 1997 Michael Swanwick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
There were three chief things I wanted to accomplish in Jack Faust. I wanted to write about damnation by science. I wanted to rescind the forgiveness Goethe extended Faust. And I wanted to give Margarete her own voice.
This last is essential. Goethe's Margarete is simply a marker of Faust's desire -- someone for him to suffer the anguishes of love and regret over. In my version, Margarete flirts with damnation, loses her soul, and ultimately regains it. Her redemption is the heart of the novel.
I've oversimplified furiously here -- no novel can be schematicized in a few hundred words -- but in essence, that's what I've tried to do. One thing I know, however: My Faust is far from being the last. Because it's also the nature of myth that it is a shape-changer and a shadow-shifter. As soon as you get it nailed down, it slips away again, to be something else for somebody new. And that's the way it ought to be.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ranks as possibly my favorite book I have ever read, possibly than for no other reason than this is tackling my favourite thought experiment - if I could go back in time with what I know, how would I change the world.Except that's not really the thought experiment being tackled, but good enough. We see the story of a man who wants scientific knowledge and is offered it in abundance. He thinks it will improve mankind, those who offer it him do so because they are convinced it will destroy mankind.Not sufficient to tell just this story it does track his pursuit, capture and eventual fall of his sweetheart. Again asking the question that if something comes with too much ease is it worth having anymore?nothing i can say can do this book justice - if you like alternate timeline thought experiments then this is the book for you.
I've never read Goethe's Faust, but I have read Marlowe's. This book was very strong and entertaining, and does not actually sit in the real 'history' of the world. It instead creates its own, based on human nature. The only true flaw in this book is Gretchen, who begins as true and virtuous. Then she completely changes, quite inexplicably. Mephistopheles is not traditional, yet is none the less a truly evil character. This book is very rewarding if you can overcome its problems.