Science Fiction, Alchemy, or a Little Bit of Both?

John Crowley, the author of classic Little, Big, believes he’s found the strongest contender for “oldest SF story,” and he loves the story so much, he’s working on a new translation of it for Small Beer Press. The story, The Chemical Wedding, appeared in Germany in 1616 and purported to be the work of Christian Rosencreutz, the legendary founder of Rosicrucianism. A theologian and utopian named Johann Valentin Andreae admitted to authorship years later, and called the book a “ludibrium”—which can mean hoax or joke—but by then it had already become one of the foundational texts of the Rosicrucian movement. And Crowley thinks the book is much more than that.

As he explained to The Guardian,

It’s not a tract, and I actually don’t think it’s an allegory. I think it’s a ‘Thrilling Wonder Tale’, taking the most extreme possibilities of the alchemy of the day and deploying them in a story as though they are actual happenings. Science fiction works the same way—[to] take the farthest-out science possibilities and embody them in stories.

Other SF experts, including Farah Mendlesohn and Adam Roberts, disagree with the idea that The Chemical Wedding is a true science fiction novel—since it deals with alchemy and magic, it doesn’t quite meet the same scientific standards as Frankenstein, published 200 years later.

Either way, the reissue of The Chemical Wedding will make a wonderful addition to SF and SF-adjacent literature. Small Beer Press will release the new edition, with a translation by Crowley, illustration by Theo Fadel, and design by Jacob McMurray, the Senior Curator for the EMP Museum, in time for the book’s 400th anniversary in November. You can learn more about the project here!


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