Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jack Faust

Some writers are more natural short story writers while others are more gifted novelists. Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Roger Zelazny are prototype short story writers. Zelazny wrote many novels, most of which were quite wonderful reading, but they generally lacked the development and continuity to really be successful as novels; rather they were elaborate fix-up, or mosaics, a collection of related scenes illuminating a central theme rather than developing it.

What separates a true novel from a fix-up are two traits. The first trait is continuity. A novel is like a continuous function. Each scene follows directly from the scene behind it and leads naturally into the subsequent scene. A fix-up, however, features individual scenes which are separate from each other and serve as portions of a longer background story which is never told.

The second trait is development. A novel has a central focus that is developed steadily and completely throughout. A fix-up does not usually have that focus, but rather a background setting, several aspects of which are illustrated during the book’s length.

This is not intended to be a value judgment in any way. Development is not necessarily the best way to examine a particular scenario. In fact, there is some argument that a single plotline is a terrible way to examine a created world since it concentrates too much on plot development to the exclusion of the world underlying it. Consider, for example, Keith Roberts’ classic Pavane, which examines different aspects of a wonderful world. Had he created a continuous novel instead, much of what he revealed about his alternate universe would have been missing through his concentration on plot instead.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to Michael Swanwick. I’ve always felt that Swanwick is a short story writer rather than a true novelist. His first novel In the Drift was a traditional fix-up, being constructed from several individual novelettes each of which was set at different points in a longer, more elaborate story. His subsequent novels have been published–and presumably written–as novels, yet they still demonstrated more of the qualities of fix-up. Both Stations of the Tide and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter were composed of many little scenes examining the marvelous world Swanwick created, but there were few of the traditional traits that made those books novels per se.

Perhaps his most successful fix-up book is Jack Faust. It is ostensibly a retelling of the Faust legend, how he sells his sold to the devil for knowledge. Swanwick gives it a science fictional basis in which the devil is a denizen of another universe who hates humanity because of our race’s long lives which will enable us to outlive it’s superior race’s relative brevity. Thus the devil gives Faust as much knowledge as he needs to fast-forward humanity’s progress through the Industrial Revolution and beyond, all intending for humanity to destroy itself with its arrogance and selfishness.

Reading Jack Faust left me with two main impressions of the book: first, it is not a coherent novel with a steadily-developed central focus. It is a series of scenes illuminating various stages of humanity’s race through technological progress as spurred by Faust’s intellectual gifts; and second, those scenes run the gamut from good to truly outstanding. What we have here more resembles a collection of stories stitched together by a connecting framework rather than a novel. But that in no way takes away from the enjoyment of those individual scenes themselves. They are fun, often provocative, frequently illuminating, and providing a satirical overview of the development of the modern world, as well as examining the emotional development of a passionate scholar from student through stardom through powerful icon. For all its lack of coherence, this is probably Swanwick’s best novel, which combined with the high quality of his short story collections, Tales of Old Earth being perhaps the finest, truly marks him as one of the best writers currently working in science fiction.


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