Sammy Jay: In Other Worlds

Sammy Jay Peter Harrington Catalogue, In Other Worlds
a conversation with Silke Lohmann

Peter Harrington's latest literature catalogue "In Other Worlds - Fantasy, Science Fiction and Beyond" focuses on genres that seem a lot more real to us after spending three months in lockdown. During this strange time, many of us thought occasionally that we are living in a world we used to read about in books and many of us escaped this new reality by reading. We found the catalogue to be a good mix of well-known classics to virtually unknown, with prices ranging from six figure sums to a few thousand pounds. The most expensive item included is Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World from 1726 (£125,000), his masterpiece of political satire that also holds a significant place in the evolution of science fiction. Mary Shelley's The Last Man from 1826 is a rare copy in original boards of her apocalyptic novel that is set at the end of a 21st century post-pandemic world (£25,000). There are lots of discoveries to be made though, mine was Florence Dixie's Gloriana or The Revolution of 1900 from 1890 which sees the heroine transform from "New Woman, to cross-dressing Prime Minister, and, finally, to rational-dresser and feminist icon of the future…" (£3,000). Produced by Sammy Jay, The Book Collector invited him to tell us a bit more about his latest catalogue:


- When did you decide to work on a catalogue on fantasy and sci-fi? It does seem the perfect lockdown catalogue...

The idea was, at first, a humorous fix for a conundrum. Last year’s literature catalogue (I get to produce one, each summer) had the rather broad theme of “World Literature”, which left me wondering: where on earth do we go from there? The answer was obvious: not on earth. Certainly the prospect of adventuring in the teeming multiverse of imaginative literature was inviting – reaching outwards to far flung adventures in space and time, and inwards into the infinitely mutable universes inside our skulls. And I had always been keen on the idea of weirdness – of bringing it home. These ideas were all in orbit last autumn, and much of the selection was already in hand by March.

What I had not expected was just how relevant so much of it would seem when the catalogue went to print, in the midst of coronavirus lockdown. Tales of pandemic apocalypse such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, or political dystopias such as E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (written in 1909, it imagines a future world in which humans, having rendered the earth uninhabitable, are confined to individual rooms and permitted to communicate with one another only through electronic screens…), seemed to be lurching off the page to stalk the public sphere.

And of course, in our general, several, confinements, we have come to appreciate books all the more – literature is our transport system (at once public and private) which has remained up and running. Take your pick – in the seat of Wells’s Time Machine, aboard the Nautilus of Captain Nemo, through an unprepossessing wardrobe, or on the back of a dragon – and disregard those who might call it escapism. The world is getting weirder every day, and as Hunter S. Thompson said: “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”.


- What were your personal highlights when you worked on the catalogue? 

I had a real eureka moment when I found, this February at one of the California bookfairs, a manuscript poem by Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles (also Fahrenheit 451), which he composed while sitting in the Disney Projection room watching NASA’s Viking I lander enter Martian orbit. It seemed to me a thrilling thing – manuscript evidence of one of the great imaginations of American science fiction, reacting in real time to a breakthrough moment in space exploration. It was an extra kick to discover, while cataloguing it, that  when NASA’s Curiosity rover more recently touched down on Mars, the NASA team commemoratively named the landing spot “Bradbury Landing”.

There was also a rare collection of fairy tales which I’d never seen before, written by a fascinating friend of Mary Shelley, born Mary Dods, who for some years both lived and wrote as a man, Walter Sholto Douglas. With some passport-fiddling help from Mary Shelley, Douglas eloped to Paris with a pregnant friend, lived with her as man and wife (and child), and cut a figure in the salons of Stendhal and Victor Hugo, before ending up in a debtor’s prison. A bold, unconventional life – and a story I was glad to learn.

And then there’s Der Orchideengarten, but you ask me about that below!


- I was rather surprised to see so many women writers, is this still a good area to start collecting in? And do we generally feel it is more of a male genre because many of them used pseudonyms? 

I’m sure we feel it’s a male genre because (like many things) it is traditionally rather crowded with male creators and male consumers. I did try to represent a reasonable complement of women writers, and I’m (sheepishly) glad you found more than you expected – but it’s never really enough. Must try harder. But who can ignore Mary Shelley, who invented the science fiction novel with her teenage debut, and then with her follow up The Last Man, did the same for apocalyptic fiction? I also enjoyed throwing in Virginia Woolf’s queer masterpiece Orlando, a dazzling interloper to this genre circuit, because what’s not fantastical about a time-travelling, magically-gender-switching protagonist? I hope Virginia wouldn’t have minded. Much more recently there is the exciting development of African-American writer Nora K. Jemisin, whose Broken Earth trilogy (2015-2017) became the first ever to win the prestigious Hugo Award in three sequential years.


- Generally there seem to be some great classics in the tens of thousands, but plenty of books in the lower thousands and hundreds, which suggests that it is a good new collectors market. Would you like to tell us a bit more about the fantasy and sci-fi market ... is fantasy still in the lead in terms of buying power?

There is certainly plenty of appealing material in the fantasy and science-fiction market, whatever your entry level. Prices in these genres, particularly Sci-Fi, can be extremely condition-sensitive – perhaps showing some cultural closeness to the lunatic pricing structure of slabbed “Superman” magazines? – but also because the dust jackets are usually illustrative and so pretty examples are particularly desirable. We had a fine copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, an entirely unrestored example of the striking dust jacket, that could have sold four or five times over.

I wouldn’t want to discriminate between Sci-Fi and Fantasy too much, still less pit them competitively against each other! I’m more interested in how they are similar examples of the same phenomenon, which I like very loosely to call “imaginative literature”. I think certainly we can say that the market for that is very strong at present. There is a very funny cartoon I saw somewhere recently, showing a sombre librarian carrying a stack of books from the “Dystopian Fiction” section to the “Current Affairs” section. Maybe that gives a clue as to why.


- Interesting to spot 'drug literature' in the catalogue as well and although I agree it makes total sense, I would love to hear what made you include it? 

The Index was such fun to group. The one you’re referring to was entitled “Drugs and Madness”. My original title for the catalogue itself was actually “The Mind is its Own Place” – a quote from Paradise Lost – though I do prefer In Other Worlds as it’s much more expansive. Nonetheless, there is something lysergic about the potentiality of literary space, so too with mental space, whence this preoccupation. Throwing intoxicants into the mix is just fuel for the fire – but it’s the same fire, whether you’re William Blake conversing soberly with angels, or Coleridge dosing himself Xanadu-wards.

In the 20th century there’s some great drug-writing in Sci-Fi too – in Dune’s obsession with “the spice” of course, or Philip K. Dick, but a personal favourite is William Gibson’s deeply poetic Neuromancer, where the protagonist injects a narcotic “derm” so strong that “his teeth sang in their individual sockets, like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol”.

One really thrilling piece I was delighted to represent in the catalogue is the Voiage a Visbecq, an original late 18th-century French manuscript, in which some French aristocrat (loafing about the Low Countries in the years following the Revolution) relates an extraordinary opium-induced voyage into a fantasy land peopled with multi-coloured lions and lit by several suns. Sure it precedes de Quincey, but it also anticipates things like Alice in Wonderland, being an exceptionally early example of what I would call pure fantasy – that is fantasy which does not seem to be serving any allegorical or satirical purpose. To me that’s exciting, whether or not opium was the catalyst - but in this case it was, so at least some credit is due to the poppy.


- I am also intrigued by the German magazine 'Der Orchideengarten"' from 1919-20 - to have a collection of 42 issues must be a real achievement and it seems to be the only magazine included, how rare is it to find collections like this? 

I’m so pleased you found it intriguing. The complete set of Der Orchideengarten, considered the world’s first dedicated fantasy magazine, is something I would delight in taking you, or anyone, through – but it was one of the first things to sell, so we never even got to put it on display! And I sincerely doubt I will see another. The front cover of the catalogue, depicting that stunning astral crustacean making a morsel out of the unfortunate nude lady in its claws, was one of the front covers of The Orchid Garden. What’s particularly compelling about the magazine is its timing and place: a monstrous cultural birth from the ruins of post-war Germany. The artist and writers who collaborated in contributing to it were scattered in the cataclysm of the following decades – some few becoming prominent Nazi film makers or artists, and others, Jewish or anti-Nazi, escaping to America to enrich the early fantasy/sci-fi culture there.


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