What was the first science fiction novel?

The Chymical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz might be the first ever sci-fi novel, claims John Crowley, but are there even earlier claimants?

“The heroes of many Indian myths, in a strange echo of today’s Marvel superheroes, also often derive their powers from scientific knowledge.”

Ask many science fiction fans what the first novel in their beloved genre was and they will likely point you to H G Wells The Time Machine (1895) or Jules Vernes Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). They aren’t bad guesses, both authors hold an important place in the history of sci-fi. But they’re very far from being its progenitors.

Anybody who knows the work of John Crowley will not be surprised that he traces the roots of science fiction back far further. Little, Big, Crowley’s fairie family saga, is as much a book about the history of fairy stories as it is a fairy story, and his two decades in the making Aegypt quartet is equally reflective on the history and influences of the mythologies it plays with.

Working with Small Beer Press and artist Theo Fadel, Crowley is bringing back from the hinterlands of human imagination a book he claims ranks as the first work of science fiction. The Chymical Wedding was first published in 1616, exactly four centuries ago this year. It follows the journey of it’s protagonist Christian Rosencreutz over seven days to a magical castle to witness the wedding of the King and Queen.

Calling The Chymical Wedding a work of science fiction risks making it sound rather less interesting than it is. The books authorship was claimed after his death by Johann Valentin Andreae, a German theologian and influential figure in Protestant utopianism. Laced with occult symbolism and layers of esoteric allegorical meaning, The Chymical Wedding became a foundational text of the secret order of Rosicrucianism, and hence influenced all of Western occultism.

The long and complex relationship between occultism and sci-fi is a topic deserving of its own article, or even book. Long story made short, The Chymical Wedding was almost certainly known to Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker and other authors of fantastic literature involved with The Order of the Golden Dawn. It’s not a huge leap from there to speculate that The Chymical Wedding was an influential text in the history and development of science fiction.

But was The Chymical Wedding science fiction itself? As John Crowley argues, the story is engaged in exactly the same kind of speculative process as modern SF, based upon the cutting edge science of its day – alchemy. Were he alive today, Johann Valentin Andreae is exactly the kind of figure you might expect to find cranking out the transcendent visions found in the best scifi storytelling. Science fiction certainly. But the first sci-fi story?

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Not even close. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two great epic tales of Hindu mythology, preserved over at least 2000 years, are just as much “science fiction”. The race of Vidyahara’s in those tales are made powerful by their “vidya”, a Sanskrit word for knowledge or science. The heroes of many Indian myths, in a strange echo of today’s Marvel superheroes, also often derive their powers from scientific knowledge. No doubt readers of this article can suggest many more examples.

Which isn’t to downplay the fascinating question John Crowley is throwing out for sci-fi fans to chew on. Science fiction is the name we give today to a storytelling tradition that weaves through all of human history. There’s a banal awfulness to taking that rich, mysterious history, amputating it’s first few thousand years, and saying sci-fi began when John W Campbell began editing Astounding science fiction in 1937, or whichever blip in the the spacetime continuum of story happens to appeal to your cultural bias.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein? The epic of Gilgamesh? Thomas More’s Utopia? For a lot of young people today science fiction begins with Star Wars. Where we place the boundaries of our culture says much about who we are and what we value. For those of us who value sci-fi for the freedom it gives to look beyond cultural norms, to imagine our world as it could be not just as it is, and to speculate on what lies beyond the apparently real, the history of sci-fi is as old as the human imagination.

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