Asked to identify the first science fiction novel, a reasonable reader might respond by choosing Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Or maybe Thomas More’s “Utopia.” Or perhaps “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.

But what about “The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz,” written by Johann Valentin Andreae? Never heard of it or him? Presque Isle native, acclaimed novelist and Yale professor John Crowley has reworked the text and makes the case that “The Chemical Wedding” could be considered the origin point of the genre that has given us “The Martian Chronicles,” “Neuromancer” and “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

“Unlikely” is perhaps the best word to describe the new edition of the 400-year-old account of nuptials at an enchanted castle. First published in Germany, the book features all kinds of far-fetched events: magical contests, beheadings and subsequent resurrections, and the arrival of Venus and Cupid, not to mention a tussle with a giant, naked bird dyed blue. It also delves into the hard science of the day, presenting wonders extrapolated from the rules of alchemy.

Also improbable is the notion that a small independent publisher in Easthampton, Massachusetts, would be able to raise more than $72,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to produce a deluxe limited hardcover edition for the book’s quatercentenary.

Yet that was precisely what Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press did, thanks to the efforts of Crowley, illustrator Theo Fadel and designer Jacob McMurray. Now the trade paperback and digital versions of “The Chemical Wedding” are available, so that a wider readership might enjoy and be befuddled by this bizarre chronicle of the most far-out wedding preparations imaginable.

The author of “The Translator,” “Four Freedoms” and the modern American fantasy classic “Little, Big,” Crowley contributes a helpful introduction and an amusing end note to the volume, as well as copious footnotes both illuminating and smile-provoking.

“I would contend that ‘The Chemical Wedding’ is not only a fantasy-romance/joke-parody/hoax tall tale, it is in fact the first science fiction novel,” Crowley writes. “Such a claim of course has to be based on some sort of definition of ‘science’ (and also of ‘fiction’), but I think it can be sustained.”

“The Chemical Wedding” purports to be an account by Christian “Rose-Cross” Rosencreutz, a mysterious magus who supposedly roamed Europe doing good deeds until he died at the age of 106 in 1484. The story opens just before Easter Sunday, as Christian, having finished his prayers, feels a sudden tug on his coat. He turns to find a beautiful female visitor in a sky-colored robe, bearing a golden trumpet and a bundle of letters. One of the missives is for Christian, an invitation to a royal wedding, one he had dreamed about seven years before. With a certain amount of trepidation, he sets off for the event.

Rather than featuring a simple bachelor party or a rehearsal dinner, the wedding presents Christian with a series of daunting puzzles to solve. He must choose the footpath with the least possibility of disaster (avoid the one bordered by “fiery blasts”!) and decide whether to compete in a weighing contest, whose results may prove deadly. He must also come to grips with the fact the bride and groom are both killed before they can exchange their vows. Eventually, he makes an error in judgment that may end his wanderings permanently.

Although loaded with religious and alchemical symbolism, much of which remains completely inscrutable despite Crowley’s efforts, it is clear that “The Chemical Wedding” was never meant to be taken completely seriously. On the other hand, it is more than a mere goof.

Crowley writes, “Unlike other contenders, it’s fiction; it’s about the possibilities of science; and it’s a novel, a marvelous adventure rather than simply a parable or an allegory or a skit or a thought experiment. (Like SF, it probably appealed to a self-selected readership of geeks and enthusiasts.)”

Poor, beleaguered Christian is ultimately what holds everything together in “The Chemical Wedding.” The magus is never quite sure of what’s going on, but he always wants to do the right thing in response to it. Charmingly self-effacing, he downplays his own virtues, afraid that he’ll be called out as a braggart, and he’s always grateful when somebody, perhaps God, gets him out of a jam.

“The Chemical Wedding” certainly won’t be to every modern taste. It’s messy, confusing, sometimes tiresome and frequently bonkers. But readers willing to surrender to its trippy rhythms and odd narrative choices will find many pleasures therein, from Fadel’s lively and grotesque drawings to Crowley’s erudite-yet-accessible footnotes. Especially interesting are the ways in which Andreae presents such a distinctive, funny, frightening and touching view of how the universe operates.

Small Beer, Crowley and his collaborators have successfully mixed together disparate elements to create a strange literary concoction that fizzes with creative energy.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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