While Swanwick may not ever achieve the status of a Thomas Mann, he has penned a quite creative reworking of the traditional Faustian myth. Casting his vision on the template of science fiction, Swanwick adds interesting dimensions to the already complex Faustian characters. Mephistopheles appears as an alien force; as arrogant and manipulative an extraterrestrial as he ever was a demon. Margarete still appears as the innocent caught in the crossfire of evil and eviler. Wagner, the fanatic sycophant, who never realizes that not only is he a pawn, but he's a pawn that neither side cares enough to either advance or gambit. And Faust, the perpetual megalomaniac. His desire to master thoughts ends up making thoughts his master. He creates and creates but with no purpose except the creation, much like a pathogen. Ultimately the purpose, as in the traditional legend, serves those who gave him the tools to create.
And in all this richness, Swanwick adds. This is a message to the future, our future, which is nightmarishly similar to Faust's reality. Ushering in an UltraIndustrial revolution, Faust overwhelms too many with too much and as Mehpistopheles knows, the gifts that mechanization brings to fruition are never used for benefit. For example, one of the first films produced after the invention of film (in the book) is no less than a pornographic movie (the title being a colorful four letter word starting with "f"). And in this uncontrollable momentum, this Newtonian nightmare, no end is in sight. Indeed, no end is possible. Like a vehicle out of control people will die because of the chaos. Mephistopheles is counting on the entire world to die. And he is not disappointed.
Swanwicks reason for the reworking. Knowledge doesn't make us more certain of a future. It could very well be the opposite. What makes us certain of a future is knowledge used properly. Knowledge used without greed, without vanity; knowledge used with humanity, with compassion. Creation for a higher purpose. Faust was like a child who desired a toy and once that toy was possessed, only desired another which he did not have. It is not how much one knows, but how one uses that knowledge which they already possess . . . to help others. All this can be gathered from the classical workings of the myth. What Swanwick adds is a slight, but significant twist. In giving Jack Faust the knowledge to create scientific wonders without end, Mephistopheles knew that WE, as a people, would misuse them, regardless of if Faust misused them or not (he did). And that is the beauty, that is the addition Swanwick gives us to the Faust legend. We are all Faust. We are all culpable. Because we all had a hand in our own damnation. And consequently, if we are all Faust, we can all stop this damanation. We have a choice to stop the "death instinct", as Freud called it. But guilty or innocent we will drag each other down or lift each other up. It is, in the end, a simple matter of choice.