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New Worlds: Alchemy

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Oh, alchemy. You might be the most thoroughly mis-used magical term in all of fantasy.

I mean, it’s fine for there to be a fictional concept that differs from the real-world one. Culture does that, taking an idea and running with it in a new direction that its progenitors would not have recognized. But it’s amusing to me that “alchemical” has become the go-to label any time an author or game designer wants the setting to include some kind of magitech: it’s alchemical! That’s all the explanation you need!

This isn’t entirely random. Alchemy is one of those things that confounds our modern categories, because depending on what you pay attention to, it can look like magic or like science. It is legitimately a fore-runner of chemistry, but it is also legitimately a whole metaphysical framework that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rational behavior of matter. And since its practitioners also tended to shroud their ideas and experiments in secrecy, there’s a lot of leeway to imagine whatever you like.

Having said that, alchemy does have an original meaning that’s pretty far from people riding around in “alchemical” mecha or airships.

We tend to use this term in two specific geographic/historical contexts, those being premodern Europe and China. India has a similar tradition, as part of ayurvedic medicine, though I hear it spoken of in alchemical terms less frequently; alchemy was also around in the Islamic world. Tracing the connections between these is difficult — at what stages did they influence each other, versus developing independently? — but if I had to describe the core concepts shared among them, it would be this: the philosophical combination of material work with spiritual development in pursuit of the perfection of matter.

The material work is where the chemistry aspect comes in. Alchemists working with various herbs and minerals discovered or explored a lot of interesting properties, like what happens when you heat different substances, expose them to acids, and so forth. They developed equipment for tasks like the distillation of liquids which were vitally important for the advance of chemistry, and sometimes they happened upon very useful substances — even if those weren’t the ones they wanted to find.

But what distinguishes this from chemistry is the philosophical side. The question here wasn’t just “what can we get these substances to do?” but “how can we get them to do what we want?” Stereotypically, what modern people know about alchemists is that they were trying to turn lead into gold; some people also know they were trying to become immortal; fewer know they also wanted to develop a “panacea,” a medicine that could cure every disease. What these three things have in common is the ideal of perfection. Gold being the most perfect metal, surely you can purge the impurities from lead and thereby refine it into gold. Disease being an imperfection, surely you can drive it from the body. Mortality being an imperfection, surely you can purge that from a human and make them live forever.

Never mind that metals and diseases are, to the modern mind, very different things. For alchemy to make sense, you have to view it through a cosmology that joins them together. And that cosmology has to not only apply to different kinds of matter, but to straddle (or erase) the divide between the material and the spiritual.

As does the practitioner. I know European and Chinese alchemy share the idea that one can’t merely fiddle around with a proto-chemistry set and hope to achieve anything; you yourself have to be part of the Great Work. Exactly what that means will vary depending on your beliefs, but European alchemy was a fascinating syncretism between Mediterranean occultism with roots in Egyptian and Greco-Roman paganism on the one hand, and Christian doctrine on the other. Within that syncretic framework, you are purifying yourself, embodying the same principles found in your materials.

Mind you, even a brief glance at the history of alchemy will show that involving yourself directly in the work can be extremely hazardous to your health. It’s bad enough to breathe in the fumes while you roast cinnabar to extract mercury, but then alchemists would turn around and drink the stuff. The sheer number of them that succumbed to chronic or acute poisoning must have been insanely high, and any time you wonder “how could someone have believed XYZ,” take into account not only their different cosmological framework and beliefs, but also the possibility that they were under the influence of one toxin or another.

According to legend, though, some of them indeed came out the other side as immortals. Chinese accounts are full of tales about people whose alchemical experiments paid off, as demonstrated by their dead bodies either vanishing from inside their clothing (“with their sash still tied,” we are repeatedly told) or staying behind but being as light as a feather or fragrant and undecaying. For whatever reason, European lore seems to have fewer of these; Nicolas Flamel is one of the few I can think of, despite the fact that he seems not to have practiced alchemy at all in life. (He was a scribe and a bookseller, and the legends about him having created the philosopher’s stone entirely post-date his death.)

I’d honestly love to see more fiction that engages with the actual core ideas of alchemy. I like magitech as much as the next person, and I understand the appeal of handwaving the question of why you can pour some glowing blue liquid into a tank and make a machine go — especially in games, TV, and movies, where you can get some fun visuals out of it. But after a while, it starts to feel shallow: there’s rarely any attempt to engage with the how of it beyond maybe a nod toward “there’s some unobtanium we use to make the glowing blue liquid.” Given the depth and richness of actual alchemy, the way it ties in with religion and philosophy and the fascinating properties of the natural world, flattening the word out like that feels like a missed opportunity.

But, of course, representing that kind of richness in a fictional setting would be a lot of work. Either you have to read up on the real systems and do your best to get a feel for their underlying principles and practices — easier said than done, when European alchemists in particular couched their work in thickets of metaphor and imagery — or you invent something out of whole cloth for your own world. And then you have to communicate all of that to the reader.

Let me know if you do, because I want to read the result!

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