Birthday Reviews: Stephen Baxter’s “The Twelfth Album”

Birthday Reviews: Stephen Baxter’s “The Twelfth Album”

Cover by Roy Virgo
Cover by Roy Virgo

Stephen Baxter was born on November 13, 1957 in Liverpool.

Baxter’s novel The Time Ships won the Philip K. Dick Award, the Kurd Lasswitz Preis, the Seiun Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the British SF Association Award. He won a second Dick Award for Vacuum Diagrams and has also won the BSFA Award for “War Birds,” Omegatropic, and Mayflower II. He has also won the Seiun Award for Timelike Infinity. He won the first Sidewise Award for Short Fiction for “Brigantia’s Angels” and the next year won the Long Form award for Voyage. Baxter eventually joined the Sidewise judge’s panel for a decade. On rare occasions, Baxter has used the pseudonym Jim Jones. He has collaborated with Alastair Reynolds, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett, Simon Bradshaw, and Eric Brown.

“The Twelfth Album” was originally published in the April 1998 issue of Interzone, edited by David Pringle. David G. Hartwell included the story in his Year’s Best SF 4, which was translated into Italian as well. The story was also translated into Polish for inclusion in the magazine Fenix. The story was reprinted in Baxter’s 2002 collection Phase Space: Stories from the Manifold and Elsewhere and in 2014 was translated into French for the anthology Alternative Rock.

There are several stories and novels which postulate an alternative history for the Beatles and “The Twelfth Album” is one of them. In this story, the narrator and his friend Lightoller are sitting in the bowels of a long-serving ocean liner which has been turned into a berthed hotel in Liverpool. A friend of theirs known as Sick Note, has died and they are sitting in his apartment in the hotel listening to some of his old vinyl records and reminiscing about him. However, they come across an album called God which has no other label or indication of tracks. When they play it, they hear eleven songs they know were recorded by the Beatles post-breakup, but on the album it is clearly all four musicians playing together.

As they listen to the slightly different versions of the songs they know, they slowly come to the conclusion that when Sick Note was telling them about looking through a crack in the hull he was actually looking to another world with a different timeline, one in which the Beatles stayed together long enough to record a twelfth studio album. As long as they listen to the album, they can believe their theory, but once they have turned off the music, they return to their senses, knowing that the hotel, formerly the RMS Titanic couldn’t possibly be a gateway to other worlds.

This is a story in which little happens, really the literary version of sitting around shooting the breeze with friends and coming up with ideas which seem really cool when they are being talked about, in this case, more Beatles. Interestingly, a lot of the alternate Beatles stories wind up providing the potential play lists for albums the Beatles never got around to recording. Baxter manages to capture the feel of late night chat sessions and nostalgia for the Beatles quite well.

Reviewed in its original publication in the magazine Interzone #130, edited by David Pringle, April 1998.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.

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Rich Horton

A good choice, of course. One could probably do an anthology of Alternate Beatles stories — there’s “Snodgrass”, by Ian MacLeod, to mention just one other.

But there were other possible choices: Robert Louis Stevenson, of course (and I’ll link to my review of one of his books in the comments.) The great Philip Francis Nowlan! (I can’t believe you didn’t feature a Buck Rogers story, Steven!) Oliver Onions, author of one of the great ghost stories of all time (“The Beckoning Fair One”). My old U of I classmate (or he might have been a year ahead), Larry Doyle. (I never really knew Doyle, but he wrote comic stuff for the Daily Illini, and my friend Douglas E. Schaller, who wrote sports for the paper, knew him — then Doyle became semi-famous as a writer for shows like THE SIMPSONS, and for the LOONEY TUNES movie, and for novels like I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER, and GO, MUTANTS!, and for humor pieces in the New Yorker.) And of course Brenda W. Clough, who did some really good work (not enough lately, alas), the best perhaps being her novel HOW LIKE A GOD, and also an Analog story, “May Be Some Time”, about Lawrence Oates.

Rich Horton

Thanks. I had heard of “Revise the World” though I didn’t know it was novel length. I hadn’t heard of SPEAK TO OUR DESIRES.

I just posted a review of SUBURBAN GODS, the SFBC omnibus of HOW LIKE A GOD/DOORS OF DEATH AND LIFE.

Oh, and here’s the Stevenson review link I promised, THE NEW ARABIAN NIGHTS.

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