All the Galaxies is a book that is hard to categorise. It is an odd mixture of dystopian vision, some light horror with a religious twist, a dark, often satirical, vision of modern media and an investigation of a secular afterlife. If a bookshop needed to pigeonhole, and such a shelf existed, it might best be described as literary speculative fiction.
The book opens with a boy who names himself Tarka. Tarka has died and has found himself on another planet beside his childhood dog, a border terrier named Kim. It turns out that Kim can talk and is to be Tarka’s guide to an afterlife which encompasses ‘all the galaxies’ and their attendant stars and planets. After a while getting used to this idea, Tarka asks Kim if they can go and find his mother who had died years before. The rest of Tarka and Kim’s strange journey across the universe is in pursuit of this goal. There are beautiful descriptions of this secular afterlife:
Tarka looked down. A stream of lights flowed below them, like a river. A pale planet hung in the void like a pebble. The lights flowed, almost parallel to Tarka and Kim, led by a brighter light, and smaller bodies fanned out behind …
What? Tarka said.
Humans – reborn like you, Kim said …
Below, far below, slowly spun the vast dish of another galaxy. It was berry-red and melon-pink, a scatter of sandy sharpshine through it like molten silver…
The people held hands, hand in hand, arm in arm. They were silent against the vault of darkness …
Where are they going? Tarka said.
They will find a place and stay here in the star field, for while.
Back in the real world, Scotland has gone to hell. Following a time of extreme violence, now referred to as ‘The Horrors’, the country has retreated to a series of regional states each controlled by a local government. Greater Glasgow is ruled over by a man called Thomas Parry, who in turn is advised by a demonic figure simply known as Norloch. Between them they are creating a mini-fascist state in the city and its surrounds:
Later that day the Police Board would meet to discuss the permanent arming of the police and its auxiliary citizen militias. A move from special circumstances to a constant ‘emphasis of power’. It was necessary, Norloch argued.
In Glasgow, reporter John Fallon is not only dealing with this new reality and the fact that his son has gone missing but that the newspaper he works for has been taken over by LaVey, a multinational corporation whose local representative, Troutwine, seems to have no interest in traditional media:
[Troutwine continued] … LaVey, after a thorough and comprehensive review of The Mercury’s business model, income, uptick and downtick, outgoings and incomings, is to re-assess and consider the efficiency streams and how our mechanisms can deliver our product to the market and our desired but not committed consumers …
I thought I was a writer, hirsute Barber said. But it turns out I’m a multi-platform content provider.
Miller, himself an arts journalist, puts plenty of pain and anguish onto the page. This about the media from later in the novel:
Years of cost-cutting, redundancies, shortcuts, failed IT upgrades and office reshuffles had battered mainly good reporters – some elegant writers, some perceptive commentators – into depressed hostages. What a failure the newspaper industry had been [Fallon] thought. And all the braggart suits that had swaggered around newspaper offices for decades, telling hacks what and how they should write, giving away the work of journalists for free on the internet for 30 years, as guilty as any incompetent swindlers in history.
The story winds around Fallon and his fellow journalists as they dig into the rise to power of Thomas Parry and the real story behind the Horrors. At the same time, fellow journalist Shona is investigating reports of a man who has stigmata, the wounds of Christ, whose strange prophetic words also punctuate the text and who speaks in riddles:
The end comes not with broken seals and the foretold apocalypse, he said, but with the subtle change of mind, a breath of new air. Then history is torn. There are jackals in the throne room.
Miller does manage to bring some strands together artfully and with some poignancy. Occasional chapters detail Fallon’s history with his son Roland both before and after his wife left. Roland himself gets mixed up with a group of student demonstrators, concerned with the new powers in the city. The scenes of Tarka’s afterlife become increasingly surreal, beautiful and ultimately tragic.
With so much going on in this book, it is difficult for Miller to keep all the balls in the air. The supernatural and religious rub up uncomfortably against the secular and many of these more speculative aspects are never fully explained. The novel groans under the number of plot strands and points of view and there are just too many narrative strands to create a feeling of cohesiveness. All the Galaxies is a brave experiment but while many parts of it work, the whole is less than the sum of its many parts.