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At last the long drought is over for parched readers of revolutionary sci fi. Mason’s venture into fiction is fast and funny, clever and surprising. Rare Earth, set in China, offers a chaotic montage of present-day gangster capitalism, post-Stalinist brutality and cultish contemporary tribes. The pace, poetry and rude laughter of the book befit a savage hyperreality of the present global capitalist system, in which visions of justice and progress, consigned to the past, become extraterrestrial visitants.
The book’s central character, the sexist drunkard journalist Brough, is in China to find and record the truth. Uncool but heroic, he treks across wastes of radioactive sand and meets veterans of Tiananmen, rising up in their gulag only to be murdered and return again as spectres and portents. Mason’s story follows bumbling, ridiculous young lovers and a prostitute turning in corrupt officials, while the honest detective wavers on which side to take between repression and liberation. I sensed a new angle on radical storylines first glimpsed in Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and Frederik Pohl – masterly company for a first time novelist, though it’s no accident this is a men-only list.
The book’s attitudes to women are filtered through old fashioned male characters; females are viewed with combined antagonism and reluctant admiration. Brough’s younger woman boss – posh but brave – continually undermines his attempts to uncover the story and is instead beholden to higher powers: the Chinese rulers, the useful hedge-fund boyfriend and the New York media gatekeepers with their imperative to keep things shiny and uncontentious onscreen.
But any accusations of misogyny miss the point. Reviews that have focused on the boozing and bonking in the book only underline my belief that most of our current cultural gatekeepers could not recognise a revolutionary possibility if it biffed them on the nose. Paul Mason’s edgy writing does justice to this world we try to live in – with its devastating resource wars, its pervasive sex industries, its ever-mutating subcultures – whirling around like the hyperconductive minerals that power our labile communications universe. Revolutionary times make revolutionary fiction.