Book review: All The Galaxies, by Philip Miller

Author Phil Miller. Picture: Ryan McGoverne
Author Phil Miller. Picture: Ryan McGoverne
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There are flashes of brilliance in this dystopian sci-fi novel set in Glasgow and a distant galaxy, but it lacks coherence

All The Galaxies is a novel of intermittent brilliance, fine scenes and emotional understanding. It is also, structurally, a mess, and written in different registers unconvincingly yoked together. It is set partly in a dystopian Glasgow, partly in a distant galaxy to which it seems the dead have travelled and where a young man, Roland, killed on a student march, is comforted and guided in his quest for his lost mother by the Border terrier who was the companion of his boyhood. This sounds, and indeed is, whimsical; it is also rather touching.

Independence has been rejected in a second Scottish referendum. The Holyrood parliament has been closed. There followed an outbreak of violence, known as “The Horrors”.Now order has been restored. Greater Glasgow is on the way to being an authoritarian city state, also a corrupt one; its leader is a fat drug-addict, egged on or controlled by a sinister mystery man, Norloch, reputed to have a past in which both crime and the Security Services have featured.

Jack Fallon, Roland’s father, is the features editor of a failing newspaper, the Mercury. It has recently been taken over by a Monaco-based company. Its representative, Troutvine, is a master of meaningless management-speak. (Miller, arts correspondent of the Herald, surely enjoyed writing the gobbledygook he puts into Troutvine’s mouth; it rings all too awfully authentic.) The journalists themselves are mostly, most of the time, what it seems journalists must be in Scottish fiction: foul-mouthed and drunken, but clinging, in some cases, to a battered integrity. I am surprised that Miller, who can write with such lively imagination, has been content to recycle this stereotype. One has read the same pub dialogue in too many Scottish crime novels, and is weary of it. It’s lazy writing pretending to be energetic.

Fallon is more interesting than he is allowed to be in speech with his colleagues, though even there he occasionally breaks the bonds of cliché to speak with intelligence and sincerity. There are flashbacks to his once loving but failed marriage, some of the best scenes in the novel, though readers may find the chronology hard to follow. Moreover, the relationship between him and Roland, with its mixture of love, exasperation and misunderstanding on both sides, is well and truthfully done.

Glasgow is well done too. Miller is good on buildings and their interiors, and the urban landscape; not surprisingly, since he is such a good art critic. Some may be exhilarated by his vision of a dystopian Scotland, and even think it reveals something of the dark passions simmering below the apparently respectable surface of Scottish political life today. But of course it’s an exercise in fantasy, rather than prophecy, and not an original one either – flesh-creeping stuff that leaves the flesh uncrept.

The truth is that the novel is more satisfying in parts than as a whole. Indeed it is never a coherent whole. There are too many different strands and it doesn’t hold together. There is no line, not even the kind of story-line which has you going on reading even when credibility falters. Instead, stories are picked up and discarded. Scenes of imaginative intensity jostle with scenes of the utmost banality. Interesting characters flit into the narrative and then out into the mirk. It is as if there are two, three, even four novels here, arbitrarily bundled together.

Miller is a writer of evident and very considerable talent. But at present he is a fine scene-setter who either doesn’t develop his scene or, worse, doesn’t know when to end it. One can imagine that parts of the novel published in a magazine as excerpts from a work in progress would not only work on their own, but have you eager to read the whole book. Yet the whole book disappoints. It is the 
work of a writer of imagination and ability badly in need of a strong-minded and severely critical editor, one who might say, “self-indulgence here – take it out”. The pity is that there has been no such editor, and so the novel is fatter than it should have been and less than it might have been.

All The Galaxies is published by Freight, £9.99