Review: Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles

Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles (2019), Edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Randee Dawn (FantasticBooks). 280 pages. Hardcover $25.99, Trade paperback $15.99, E-book $7.99.

By Lee Weinstein: The idea of an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about the Beatles seems like a natural. I’ve been told the two editors, each unbeknownst to the other, both presented the idea to the publisher around the same time.

Although the stories vary quite a bit there are common themes running through the anthology. There are variant timelines, alterations of the past, and many tales containing in-jokes in the form of well-known lines from Beatles songs. Some of the stories include their manager Brian Epstein and two early Beatles who didn’t quite make it into the group we now know, drummer Peter Best, and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.

There is an informative introduction by best-selling author Nancy Holder for those not up on their Beatles history and an alphabetical list of mini-biographies of the represented authors.

There are 25 stories here, most by well known authors. With the exception of the first story and the last, they are all original to the anthology. These two stand out though.

“Rubber Soul,” by Spider Robinson, (1982) opens the collection. It is a wistful, somewhat oblique tale of a John Lennon, resurrected by advanced medical science by an elderly Paul, to enable him to jam with his former bandmates for old times sake.

It closes with “Doing Lennon” by Greg Benford (1975), which was a Hugo and Nebula nominee. It is about a would-be John Lennon imposter who is wakened from cryogenic sleep in the future.

In between are 23 stories of varying quality

Standouts include “The Truth Within” by Sally Grotta, a frightening look at an alternate world in which George Harrison teaches Richard Nixon Transcendental Meditation with unanticipated results.

Another is Gregory Frost’s “A Hard Day’s Night at the Opera,” which is a quite funny recasting of the Beatles as the four Marx Brothers, although the characters have more of Marx than Beatles about them.

Naturally, there are many more alternate versions of the Beatles in other tales, some more successful than others. “The Heretic” is a short-short in which the Beatles are revered saints in a future church based on John Lennon.

David Gerrold’s “The Fabtastic Four” features them as the quartet of Marvel superheroes. In “Come Together” by Allen Steele, they are depicted as four AI’s in a space probe, and in “Foursomes” by Schneyer they are portrayed as the Four Musketeers. In “The Walrus Returns” by Gail Z. Martin they are friends who failed as a band years earlier, have mundane jobs, and together solve a mystery involving a river monster and a ghost.  “Game Seven” by Bev Vincent portrays the four as ice hockey teammates. In Keith DeCandido’s story “Used to Be” and in “A New Beginning” by Jodi Lynn Nye they are cast as wizards in alternate timelines. In Gordon Linzner’s “The Hey, Team” they are four agents who sprung from prison for a mission to rescue “Maybelline.”

There are twists and turns and lots of puns on lyrics. Cat Rambo’s “All You Need” is set in a dystopian future Seattle in which four robots built in the images of the Four turn up. “Cayenne” by Beth Patterson, is about four Cajun musicians, Jean, Paul, George and Ringaux who are sent on a mission to put down a werewolf. Along similar lines is “Undead in the Material World: The British Zombie Invasion Revisited” by Alan Goldsher, a comical takeoff on Frankenstein, in which the Beatles are literally zombies

A common theme throughout is one of parallel universes and alteration of the past. In Lawrence Watt-Evans’s “Paul is Dead” a man reaches into the past to convince a failed foursome to travel with him to a timeline where they will meet greater success, while in “A Perfect Bridge” by Charles Barouch, a software engineer reaches back to 1967 to convince the foursome to change the name of their new label to “Apple.”

In Eric Avedissian’s “Liverpool Band Battle, 1982” a destitute John Lennon desperately attempts to get the Beatles back together years after the group had failed and the members have gone on to other jobs. He needs to win a music competition to pay the prize money to a loan shark. “Deal with the Devil” by Carol Gyzander is an amusing tale about teens contacting the Beatles via a TV set using black magic.

Some of the stories don’t fit into neat categories. Matthew Amati’s “Apocalyse Rock” is set after a 1962 atomic war. It’s a rather off-the-wall post-holocaust romp with American trio “The Beetles,” Jorje, Wrongo, and Jean-Paul who impress the British member of the band Fresh Cream.

One of the more imaginative, if sometimes abstruse, pieces, is Brenda Clough’s “My Sweet Lord of Light” which somehow mixes together George Harrison, Hindu mythology, Roger Zelazny, and parallel universes. In “When I’m # 64” by Patrick Barb, Paul McCarney, for unexplained reasons, dies periodically over the decades, but his deaths are always temporary and he keeps returning.

Pat Cadigan’s “Meet the Beatles” is kind of a wish dream in which a dying woman and the ghost of a departed friend in the present transport to a 1966 Beatles concert in Cleveland and they literally become John and George for a short time. Christian H. Smith’s “Through a Glass Onion” is set in an alternate timeline in which a working class John Lennon in 1988 is able to glimpse our timeline’s Beatles through the titular glass onion given to him by a mysterious stranger.

From the perspective of someone who always liked the Beatles and their music, but was never a “Beatlemaniac,” I found that these stories are best read a few at a time. Individually they were enjoyable, but collectively, I think one could become Beatled out after a while. Nonetheless, this book would make an interesting addition to the libraries of alternate history fans and is a must read for the true Beatles fan.

Read more articles by Lee Weinstein at his website.

5 thoughts on “Review: Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles

  1. Mm-this is interesting. And I have my own (“I was there”) story about the Fab Four. Whilst in Central London (quite near Eros in Piccadilly Circus) in Jan 1969, I heard this almighty din! Nearby people said some “group” was up on a roof playing. I rushed toward the noise but found I could not get into nearby Saville Row (which at the time was occupied mostly by up-market tailors). It happened then that No 1 in that Row was the HQ of Apple Records. And of course it was the now famous rooftop concert by them. So I heard this historic event but could not see it. And a then young London “bobby” from nearby Saville Row Police Station –himself a Beatles fan– was sent up to tell them to stop (neighbour complaints). And some many years later, that policeman, on having then just passed away but then (I think) an Inspector, had a special Obituary in The Times (of London), with a 1969 pic taken of him –up on that roof– amongst the group….

  2. There’s a Beatles story by Michael Bishop called “A Little Help from My Friends” that I like (written in 1984). I’ve read the Robinson and Benford stories from this book and maybe one or two of the others. Another book for the list.

  3. Andrew, Spider Robinson’s and Gregory Benford’s are the only reprint stories in the anthology; all the rest are brand new!

    –Ian Randal Strock (the publisher of the book)

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