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INTERVIEW: Nicholas Hermann and Ella Chappell Discuss Their New Indie Project, Observatory Press

Nick writes comics and science fiction. His graphic short story, ‘Matters of Consequence’, about the life and works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was published by Elbow Room in 2014. Nick is passionate about futurology in science fiction, and delivered a paper about J. G. Ballard and Isaac Asimov’s visions of the future at the University of East Anglia’s recent ‘The Science “New Wave” at Fifty’ conference.

Ella is a poet, with a particular interest in science, post-internet and collaborative poetry. Along with a filmmaker and choreographer, she won the Southbank Centre Poetryfilm Competition in 2014, and she is currently exhibiting a spoken word piece at ‘Conditional Expressions’ hosted by STCFTHOTS gallery in Leeds.

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Nick and Ella kindly answered a few of my questions about their brand new indie project, Observatory Press. Be sure to check out the Kickstarter to donate and for more info on the project.

Rachel Cordasco: How did you first come up with the idea of selecting late 19th/early 20th century SFF to curate and print? Why is it important that we highlight these “lost classics” and bring them back into public view?

Nicholas Hermann and Ella Chappell: We’re all about the collectable. An ideal Saturday is hitting the bookshops, powered up on coffee and pastries, searching through the shelves to find irresistible books to add to our collections – objects that tell us stories, act as little pieces of artwork, that can be displayed in your room to make a statement about all the idiosyncrasies, characters and interests that come together to make you as a person. We knew immediately – once we started talking about launching a press – that we wanted to create a collection in our favourite genre – science fiction. The next step was simply finding three incredible books in this category. At the same time, we were getting really into unearthing rarities from Project Gutenberg – so this is how it all came together. It just so happens that the three best were from this time period (we considered Lucian of Samosata’s True History for quite a while, which was written in the 2nd century, but unfortunately has no discernible narrative to the modern reader!)

afterlondonHowever, having read so much science fiction from many different eras, it was very apparent that late 19th/early 20th century speculative science thought was incredibly fascinating – at once both surprisingly on the money, and quaintly ridiculous; ambitious yet riddled with fear of the unknown.

The importance of the ‘lost classic’ comes back to the collection idea. We love the idea of tracing the history of thought back to its roots – it makes you realise how far you’ve come, but also how naive we can be about the future. As writers ourselves, we also like the idea of giving these books much-deserved attention, and we like to think all three writers would be pleased!

RC: How did you choose your first three texts? And can you give us a little teaser about what’s coming up next?

NH and EC: A heck of a lot of reading! We did extensive research into relatively unknown writers, and Richard Jefferies and Edward Page Mitchell are a result of that. After London, once we read it, was an obvious choice. It is about what happens to society after a catastrophe decimates London, and all technology is abandoned. It is basically a book about knights in the future, and is a beautiful extended love letter to nature. We couldn’t resist.

clockEdward Page Mitchell’s collection of short stories The Clock That Went Backward is essential to the science fiction connoisseur because it explores, almost one by one, the tropes that have since become standard in the genre. Think automatons, time travel, invisibility – you probably couldn’t find a more comprehensive treatise on speculative scientific thought from that time.

Jack London, of course, is very well known, but we feel we are bringing attention to one of his lesser known works – The Star Rover – and highlighting the science fiction and psychological elements of it, which London explores at the height of his decadent style. It’s just a joy to read.

What next? We don’t want to give anything away, but we will certainly be opening up for submissions and looking more at contemporary writing once we’ve launched.

RC: So far, you’ve raised nearly $4K for this project- what would you say to convince any hesitators to pledge?

NH and EC: If nothing else, come to the party. We know how to throw a shindig. Just sayin’.

But seriously, that’s only if you’re in the UK. We would say: ‘If you count yourself as a science fiction fan, these three books are essential reading and deserve to be brought back and given pride of place on your bookshelf.’

RC: Do you have plans to translate any foreign language SFF?

NH and EC: We were very interested in an old Chinese science fiction story about a moon colony, and a Spanish text: El Anacronopete by Enrique Gaspar, which arguably beat H. G. Wells to the time machine game ( and those really sparked our fascination in foreign language SFF for us. There are additional challenges surrounding translation, but it is definitely something we would like to do in the future when we have more resources to do so.

starroverRC: You stress the fact that you want these books to be beautiful objects, as well as vehicles for the rediscovery of lost classics. Why is the materiality of this project important to you?

NH and EC: The best analogy we can give is that of vinyl. Think about buying a record, taking it home, lying down on your bed as you listen to the music, and get lost inside the cover art, imagining new worlds and characters. In the increasingly digital world, this is the important space that the book now inhabits. We want to protect this experience and magnify it with bigger books, better paper and fantastic illustration.

RC: Which contemporary SFF authors inspire you, and have they played a part in your wish to bring back forgotten classics?

Nick: I’m currently reading writers such as Adam Roberts, James Smythe and Simon Ings – some of the most exciting writers in the contemporary UK scene.

Ella: I’ve always been more into science than science fiction, and everything I read tends to come back to Richard Feynman. I also love Simon Singh, David Mitchell, Jasper Fford and Margaret Atwood. I recently discovered Dark Star by Oliver Langmead (published by Unsung Stories) – a science fiction epic poem, a la Paradise Lost.

The more contemporary science fiction we read that pushes the boundaries, the more it becomes apparent that there must be older science fiction works, and proto science fiction, that’s been lost to the sands of time, but that would have been equally as revolutionary and unnerving in bygone eras.

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