All The Galaxies

Philip Miller (Freight, £9.99)

Review by Alastair Mabbott

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THERE'S a great deal of talent, imagination and sheer good writing in this, Philip Miller’s second novel, but the material’s reluctance to cohere in a satisfying way ultimately leaves the reader more impressed with the parts than the whole.

All The Galaxies is set in a future Scotland after a period known as “The Horrors”, during which a nihilistic death cult calling themselves the Wardens killed hundreds in an orgy of violence. The blow to Scotland’s national psyche has been considerable. A second independence referendum returned a No verdict. The Scottish Parliament has been disbanded and elections postponed until after the trial of the Wardens’ leader, “Wee Lawrence”. A third of Glasgow’s population is being fed by food banks, while Ibrox Stadium has been converted into a homeless hostel.

It’s a disturbing vision made even more compelling by the response of Glasgow’s council leader to the crisis. Bolstered by the pharmacopoeia of illegal drugs in his desk, Thomas Parry has concluded that “all countries are fictions” and that the way ahead is to expand beyond the old boundaries and establish Greater Glasgow as a city-state, with him in charge. This is all interesting speculation about how a country might try to move forward after an apocalyptic trauma, and Miller does a good job of making it feel believable.

In such a traumatised nation, the problems of individuals don’t amount to much more than a hill of beans, so journalist John Fallon largely keeps his troubles to himself. Fallon is one of many hard-drinking hacks working for the beleaguered Glasgow paper The Mercury, which is being squeezed ever tighter by its new owners and is more or less ready to fold. A tired, sad and regretful figure, Fallon lives with his son, Roland, the child of a failed marriage to a woman now believed to be dead. Even now, he can’t help raking over his memories of their dismal break-up. And, as if he needed any more worries, Roland appears to have gone missing.

Intertwined with this, there’s another story going on, about a young man who wakes up in the afterlife and, with his old pet dog as a spirit guide, learns that the souls of the dead are spread across planets all over the Universe. Travelling at speeds far beyond that of light, he sets off to find his mother among the stars while his dog imparts the secrets of life after death. This dovetails well enough with Roland’s loss of his mother, but the reasons why a scarred future Scotland should be the appropriate backdrop for this cosmic odyssey feel just out of reach.

But it’s the third layer of the story that’s the least developed and consequently most problematic. There appears to be a genuinely demonic influence in Glasgow’s corridors of power, a yellowish figure with uncanny powers who is somehow connected to both Wee Lawrence and Thomas Parry. Mercury reporter Shona Sandison puts herself on a collision course with it when she decides to track down a man said to be afflicted with stigmata, who then begins to exhibit even more outlandish symptoms suggesting divine intervention.

This triple-headed blend of character-driven dystopia, metaphysical allegory and supernatural horror is incredibly ambitious, and would pose serious challenges to writers with far longer track records than Miller. As it is, as well as these threads might work on their own terms, All The Galaxies lacks the essential link that would tie them harmoniously together and leaves a number of questions unanswered. But that’s not meant to detract from some splendid writing along the way, the exceptional world-building of this future Scotland and the page-turning excitement of wondering where it can all be leading.