Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski (REVIEW)

Interested in hard science fiction with a college-age twist? Joan Slonczewski's first book in 10 years, THE HIGHEST FRONTIER, might be just what the doctor ordered.

One of the most respected writers of hard SF, it has been more than ten years since Joan Slonczewski's last novel. Now she returns with a spectacular tour de force of the college of the future, in orbit. Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a girl from a rich and politically influential family (a distant relation descended from the famous Kennedy clan), whose twin brother has died in an accident and left her bereft, is about to enter her freshman year at Frontera College.

Frontera is an exciting school built with media money, and a bit from tribal casinos too, dedicated to educating the best and brightest of this future world. We accompany Jenny as she proceeds through her early days at school, encountering surprises and wonders and some unpleasant problems. The Earth is altered by global warming, and an invasive alien species called ultraphytes threatens the surviving ecosystem. Jenny is being raised for great things, but while she's in school she just wants to do her homework, go on a few dates, and get by. The world that Jenny is living in is one of the most fascinating and creative in contemporary SF, and the problems Jenny faces will involve every reader, young and old.
The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski
Published September 13, 2011 by Tor Books
448 Pages


It has been ten years since Joan Slonczewski’s THE CHILDREN STAR, but the author is back with a bang with the recently released THE HIGHEST FRONTIER. Delving into a rather new arena with a story focused on the exploits of a girl born to leaders, cloned from leaders, and destined to be a leader as she enters her first year of college in a space habitat orbiting Earth, Slonczewski enters a new frontier for her writing easily, but not without a few hiccups.

I should preface this review by saying that Slonczewski is a microbiology professor by trade, and it does show in her writing. Several of her books have been about sentient microbes. This one, however, is rather tame in setting by comparison. About 100 years in the future, Earth has become decimated by climate change and pollution, and the only safe haven left is a network of space habitats in orbit around the Earth. Religious leaders have proclaimed this the Firmament, God’s territory. Jenny Ramos Kennedy is girl who lost her twin brother and has spent the past few months trying to overcome her mental issues, fears, and inability to speak publicly before coming to Frontera College orbiting high above the Earth. Paired with her story is a Presidential race and the spread of an alien organism called the Ultraphyte which had helped in the decimation of Earth, releasing cyanide and killing thousands.

The one place where Slonczewski never falters is her attention to biological detail, but at the same time, this does have a tendency to draw out the book and slow the pacing down to a crawl. There are even biology classes in the book which could substitute for a real biology class, with such detail that, despite having been a biology major for a year (bad idea), I was confused. Even more so than her previous books, I feel like THE HIGHEST FRONTIER is some love story to biology, possibly making it difficult for those that are not from a scientific background to get into the story.

One thing I loved was the characters. Each one was brilliantly crafted and came to life on the pages. I especially loved Jenny’s love interest Tom, an Amish kid who left the world he grew up in to come to Frontera – for a good reason. I’ll let you read the book and find out more about him. Anouk the French hacker, though, was my favorite. Imagine being banned from Earth for your many attempts at breaking into government computer networks. She’s a genius through and through, but her common sense might be just a little lacking.

While not quite at the level as her 1986 masterpiece A DOOR INTO OCEAN (one of my favorite books of all time, you must read it), Slonczewski puts forward a very welcome new book that is sure to win new fans and put a new spin on the science fiction genre yet again. The creativity that went into this book and the fascinating finale should win this book awards. I would definitely recommend this book, but I suggest having google open at all times, especially if you don’t know Spanish. Which I don’t.

VERDICT: Though complex and full of biological terms that might be offputting, THE HIGHEST FRONTIER is a fascinating speculative look at what the world might be in 100 years. With great characters and an all-too-believable plot, this is a book worth checking out.


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