Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles (Fantastic Books)
Edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Randee Dawn
Reading the introduction by Nancy Holder felt more like work than a non-serious Beatles fan like me was expecting. This book, she warns us, is full of insider jokes and Easter Eggs built on layers of fandom for the Fab Four. She tries to give someone like me a few pointers so readers could get some of the in-jokes. It was appreciated. So add a star if you are a serious fan of the Beatles, or were a serious fan back in the day. The first story, “Rubber Soul” by Spider Robinson, is quite full of Beatles song title references. It’s in the POV of someone – you only gradually discover who (John Lennon) has been medically brought back from the dead twenty-four years after his death… which at the time this story was originally published meant he was 64 (“Will you still need me, will you still feed me,” was asked, of course). He meets his son, Jules, for whom Google tells me “Hey, Jude” was written, to cheer Jules up as a child. It’s a joyful meeting, full of both nostalgia and hope.
The next offering is “A New Beginning” by Jody Lynn Nye. George was part of a Tetrad of Wizards, who each represented one the four elements, and while he normally was in harmony with them they’d broken up. So he’d taken a journey to get some time by himself and to help another wizard who had something that came in through the bathroom window. It was an invasion: cue those Beatles lyrics, and many others you’ll have to read this to get. George, with his affinity for water, and his magical beetles (of course), solve the problem with delightful music and save the day for fellow musician-mages. It’s fun.
In “The Perfect Bridge” by Charles Barouch, a programming team makes a tunnel through time to contact The Beatles, while the members of the music group are on a drug high, and ask a favor of them. I’ll let you decide if the favor worked, backfired, or what. Again, a fun story.
It was nice to see some fiction by Gordon Linzer. His “The Hey! Team” is a Beatles-centric riff off The A Team television show, and it was yet another story that sent me to Google –in this case to find out who the heck Richard Starkey was. I’m sure Beatles superfans know that’s Ringo Starr’s legal name, but it was news to me. This story had one member of the Fab Four team ask another, “Do you want to know a secret?” To which the other replied, “Promise not to tell?” And yet another prompted Beatles song started playing on my mental radio station, followed by “Imagine,” “Get Back,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Nowhere Man” and many more. (There were also A-Team references, like “I love it when a plan comes together” but not as frequently.) The Hey! Team had been running from the law and worked undercover for years for a Colonel Pepper (who no doubt started out as a Sergeant). But all that’s about to change.
Of course, a Beatles anthology had to have a reference to “Paul is Dead,” which is the name of the story by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It’s a time-travel/alternate universe story and I loved it the best of this entire anthology. Well done, Mr. Watt-Evans.
Next we come to a short story by one of my favorite authors and a wonderful human being: Allen Steele. His offering, “Come Together,” has four AIs named John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It’s hard scifi, where something hinky happens because their programmers gave the autonomous AIs – who were on their way to survey a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri – not only the names but some of the mannerisms of their namesake Beatles. You know, as geek humor. Well, the AIs become not only sentient but convinced that they actually were the Beatles. You’ll have to read the story to see how that worked out for the mission.
Sally Wiener Grotta wrote the next story: “The Truth Within.” It’s an alternate universe story where George Harrison goes on a mission to teach Richard Nixon how to do Transcendental Meditation to try and calm his warmongering ways. Let’s just say that Nixon is not who he expected, and TM proves to be an interesting influence.
Ken Schneyer also has a story in the anthology, titled “Foursomes.” Here the group are subjected to being, well, fictional characters. They have no idea how it happened or why, but they’ve figured out how to fix it…if they are ever themselves again. It’s worth it just to read about the Beatles as female, or Hobbits, or Musketeers or – other things.
“The Fabtastic Four” by David Gerrold is done in an interview style. The interviewer is Lois Lane for Rolling Stone. It seemed to be almost a contest Gerrold held with himself to see how many Beatles song references he could fit into it – with charming results. Long story short: something turned George, Paul, John, and Ringo into the crime fighting Fantastic Four, and their fans missed them.
Usually, when a reviewer calls a story “competent” it’s either an insult to the other authors in an anthology – implying the other short story writers in the volume were incompetent – or it means the story in question being called barely competent. Not so here. Cat Rambo’s lovely story “All You Need” tells of a future, post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest coast where people living on raft settlements struggle to get by after a nanotech disaster engulfed the mainland. The wealthy live on floating islands. Sometimes commoners could trade with them. Unlike the other stories so far the POV character here is far removed from being one of the Beatles themselves (or an omni POV like Steel’s story.) Instead this one tells things through the relatable focus of a sympathetic person, with almost none of the self-referential or archly clever notes of the rest of the book so far. How the Beatles figure into it is touching and thought provoking.
The next offering is “Used To Be” by Keith R.A. DeCandido. Jahn (John Lennon) has offended Captain Rigby of the ship Elnor (yes yes, “Eleanor Rigby,” I get it, I get it) and is in the brig. Whereas Rambo’s story was scifi, this one is an unabashed fantasy and again has the Fab Four as wizards, but with an interesting history and an even more interesting twist.
“Game Seven” by Bev Vincent is a hockey fan’s interpretation of the theme. The Liverpool Beetles have a new goalie – Ringo – and it’s the finals…
Another twist on the persistent 1960s fandom rumor that “Paul is dead” is Patrick Barb’s story, “When I’m #64.” In this tale, the rumor is true. It seems the future Sir Paul McCartney tended to die a lot and had done so over 60 times. Of course he comes back again. And again. It’s sort of like The Green Mile. I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.
“Deal with the Devil” by Carol Gyzander tries to explain the Beatles sudden popularity by arcane means. In this case they get mistakenly contacted – through their black-and-white TV with a rabbit ears antenna – by some Black Sabbath superfans who show them the way.
In “Meet the Beatles” by Pat Cadigan she writes a story based on her near-death experience with cancer melded with her love of the Beatles. It’s in her inimitable style and was quite nice.
“The Walrus Returns” by Gail Z. Martin explains the real story behind the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus.” The boys from Liverpool had not made it as a band but they were still friends, and involved in magic to boot. Now they had a mystery about a local version of Nessie showing up in the river again. It had something to with the word “walrus.” It’s a paranormal mystery, which Martin is quite good at writing.
In the alternative reality “Liverpool Band Battle 1982” by Eric Avedissian, the Fab Four never made it in the 60s, and all of them now have different lives. But interesting circumstances lead to them being a new wave sensation on the late 80s.
Next up was “My Sweet Lord of Light” by Brenda W. Clough. In this story tantric sex helps George Harrison evolve into godhood, where he meets someone else who also evolved up to it but in a different way. It’s R-rated, but makes the most of its Beatles/Roger Zelazny connection.
One of the longest stories in the anthology is “Undead in the Material World: The British Zombie Invasion Revisited” by Alan Goldsher. The Beatles started something called The British Invasion where English rock bands started topping the music charts in the USA. The Zombie Invasion was started by a man who put them together like Frankenstein monsters who could sing and play music. To be honest, I found this one unsatisfying.
This is followed by the shortest story of the lot, “The Heretic” by R. Jean Mathieu, where a religion has arisen raising each of the Beatles to sainthood… and they’re in the midst of an inquisition against unbelievers.
There’s a Louisiana/Mardi Gras feeling to “Cayenne” by Beth W. Patterson. Here we have Ringaux instead of Ringo, and they play Cajun music. They have to deal with a loup-garau that’s destroying the Tabasco plants. It’s no stranger than the storyline in most of the other stories in this volume, and a pleasant diversion.
I thought at first that we had another of the book’s numerous time-travel plots in “Through a Glass Onion” by Christian H. Smith. It’s more a story of regret at what might have been, on another timeline. Well done.
I love Gregory Frost’s writing so I was pleased to see he’d contributed “A Hard Day’s Night at the Opera” to the anthology. The Fab Four are now doubling as the Marx Brothers, and a madcap adventure ensues. Ringo is Harpo (complete with a honking horn), Lennon as Lenono is Groucho (complete with cigar), Paul (Paulo) is Chico the schemer, and George – as Georgio – is Zeppo. I don’t know why it was, but the by-now-obligatory references to Beatles song titles felt much smoother in this story than most of the others.
Next, in “Apocalypse Rock” by Matthew F. Amati: a post-apocalyptic world after JFK’s (in their world) Cuban Missile Crisis led to a nuclear war where tribes of warlords now ran things. You could be warlord, their entertainment (and get paid in food), or end up as food for the human-hybrid Monkees. The American Fab Four finds a third way, with the help of their drummer, Wrongo – a rather bloodthirsty version of the Muppet drummer, Animal.
The last story was “Doing Lennon” by the inimitable Gregory Benford – a reprint from Analog, and a damned good one. I’m not going to give this one away in any way, shape or form. This short story is worth the price of the book, people.
So there you have it. This anthology has its rough spots, mainly because there are only so many ways to play with the tools in this sandbox, only so many songs to allude to. Like I said at the opening paragraph, add a star if you are a serious fan of the Beatles, or were a serious fan back in the day. And be ready to Google anything that you don’t understand, fandom-wise. You’ll be entertained.