Science fiction is a vast expanse. It covers powerful spells, man-made monsters, jaunts through space, and pessimistic speculations about the future ahead. It’s a tradition with a rich history, full of authors who’ve accurately and imaginatively predicted new technologies and the roles they’ve played in shaping human life.
Accuracy aside, the genre has the power to suggest how the future should unfold, encouraging solutions to societal problems. And, at the core of these political objectives, it’s a space for simply sharing stories, for entertaining readers, for giving their lives a dash of added meaning.
Where, and when, did this multitudinous genre begin? What story, or stories, germinated other budding writers, who then planted roots for an established canon? That all depends on who you ask. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic book about a wandering crew, is often credited as the first science fiction novel, but the superlative is a complicated one to defend, especially when both “science fiction” and “novel” are disagreed-upon descriptors.
Presenting a new challenger to the throne is Small Beer Press, an independent publisher run by Gavin J. Grant and literary fantasy author Kelly Link. Along with fellow fantasy author John Crowley, they’re releasing a new edition of a 400-year-old book that they claim could be the first-ever science fiction novel. The press has an active Kickstarter campaign dedicated to republishing a nicely designed hardcover edition of the story; a paperback version is already in the works.
Published in 1616, The Chemical Wedding (original title, Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz) is, simply put, the story of a man who is invited to attend a wedding. It’s full of strange humor and wonder and -- this is where the sci-fi moniker comes in -- alchemy, regarded at the time as a technology with demonstrable effects.
Defending the book as squarely science fiction, Crowley wrote on the Kickstarter page, “Alchemy is science ... in the sense that it had a general picture of the material world and a rational scheme for formulating hypotheses and proceeding with investigations of it. It’s also science in the sense that what it attempts to learn about the world will implicitly expand practical human possibilities and powers.”
“For readers in 1616, reading this book was like buying a lottery ticket: your life could be immeasurably changed if you decode it.”
Grant agrees that the descriptor holds up, even if some scholars question its validity. “Of course it relies on your agreeing with his definition of science fiction and even the word ‘novel,’” he told The Huffington Post in an email. “Is Plato’s Republic a novel? If so, there’s your first SF novel. But since the first novel is generally accepted to be Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, the first part of which was published in 1605, then John’s argument seems to have legs to stand on.”
Regardless of whether The Chemical Wedding is truly a first, it’s an entertaining look into the beliefs held by those who read it at the time. Over the course of seven days, its hero, Christian Rosenkreuz, explores the strange wonders of the castle where the wedding of a king and queen is to be held. Grant says the book was seen at the time as somewhat of a mystical object by readers. “[They] were convinced there was a secret society controlling everything -- shades of the Illuminati! -- and that if they could decode texts such as The Chemical Wedding, maybe they could ascend from their everyday life and discover the secrets to life, happiness, and prosperity.”
He continued, “For readers in 1616, reading this book was like buying a lottery ticket: your life could be immeasurably changed if you decode it -- but more likely the enjoyment was in the reading (i.e. buying the lottery ticket), not in the (very unlikely) payoff.”
By adding footnotes and commissioning accompanying illustrations, Crowley, Grant and Link hope that their version of the story will provide this context for contemporary readers. They hope, too, that readers can appreciate it as more than a historical artifact, but engage with it as they would a contemporary book, losing themselves in the character’s humanity.
“Most of us are a bit like Christian,” Grant said. “We can see the grand adventure, sometimes we get to take part and to fall into pockets of strangeness and delight and trouble, but in the end we go back home, changed by our experiences but still ourselves.”