Not only did Stephen Baxter win the first Sidewise Award for Best Short Story and the second Sidewise Award for Best Novel, but he went on to serve on the Sidewise Award jury for several years, so he has very strong alternate history credentials. His short story “The Modern Cyrano” is subtle alternate history set during the middle of the nineteenth century.
Written as a series of entries in Queen Victoria’s journal during the period from September 1849 through May 1851, Baxter details the deaths of two of Prince Albert’s close friends and Victoria’s political allies. In the pages of her diary, Victoria plays amateur sleuth, noting down the details of their deaths as well as an accusation raised in both cases that the unexpected death of George Anson and the accidental death of Lord Palmerston were both caused by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was nearby around the time of both deaths.
In the 1850s of Baxter’s tale, Brunel, in addition to the massive engineering projects he was undertaking in our world, including the Great Exhibition, Brunel is also experimenting with a form of rocket. His push to move England forward has stuck in the craw of Charles Sibthorp, an ultraconservative member of Parliament who wanted England to remain the way it was in his youth in the 1700s. An antagonist to Prince Albert, Sibthorp views anything to support the Great Exhibition as an evil to be fought against.
The story’s arc is pretty straight forward from the moment the characters are introduced, but the enjoyment of the story comes from the combination of reading Victoria’s diary and seeing her putting the clues together and a nineteenth century Nancy Drew and the side notes that Baxter includes to provide the reader with the context needed to fully understand the characters and motivations. He has managed to incorporate his “data dumps” into the story in a realistic and entertaining way.
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.