Review: The Highest Frontier

Posted: February 13, 2012 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Joan Slonczewski, Science Fiction

I grew up in a small farming community in Oregon, so when I left for university–with a student body three times that of my hometown–it’s reasonable to say that it was an intimating experience. THE HIGHEST FRONTIER by Joan Slonczewski (Amazon) reminded me about those first overwhelming months. Except with way cooler stuff.

Fast forward to several decades in the future and Jenny Ramos Kennedy, a girl from a rich and politically powerful family, is beginning her freshman year at Frontera College–a school in a space habitat. It looks like a regular college on earth, with buildings for classrooms, dorms, faculty offices, and cafeterias. There’s also a community of farmers who emigrated from an earth under attack from global warming and ultraphytes–an unknown alien seeded them into the Great Salt Lake and they’ve been reproducing ever since, creating mass quantities of cyanide in the process. It’s all a big mess.

Jenny must navigate hard classes, new friends, an odd roommate, an athletic team, volunteering as an EMS, a budding romance…and so much more. Readers will follow along as she attends classes, takes counsel from the local pastor, and tries to keep up in all the social activities and coursework–as well as pressure from her politically minded family. FRONTIER is actually a pretty exhausting book to read, because not only are we trying to keep up with an active co-ed and understand all the new science and imagery being thrown at us, but about a third of the way through we’re presented with a mystery, and Jenny is compelled to understand what’s really going on.

At first I had a hard time getting into this book. Since FRONTIER is almost exclusively a concept novel, it contains ideas and ‘what ifs’ about earth’s climatic and political futures. There’s slanball, a null-grav scoccer-like game, where minds are used instead of actually touching the ball. Instead of smart phones, everyone wears ‘diads’ over their eyes that connect them to ToyNet, with instant news feeds, texts from teachers and friends, invites to parties. It’s all sensory overload and Slonczewski immerses you in it from page one, and drags you along until you finally get your footing. Even though it’s light on plot, FRONTIER has more than its fair share of ambiance and setting.

Jenny is the main narrator, with President Dylan Chase occasionally piping in with college administrative issues. Jenny has recently suffered the death of her twin brother, Jordi, and begins as an uncertain, emotionally distant young woman. Slonczewski does a great job with Jenny’s growth and characterization. She’s a smart girl, but still quite normal for her age, with her hang-ups and moments of clarity. Her relationships with the other kids in her class felt real–for the most part, some of them I didn’t quite understand.

Slonczewski is a professor of biology at Kenyon College (the college hosts a 3D image of what Frontera College looks like) and her love of the subject shines in FRONTIER. She peppers it with questions about ultraphytes. The space hab residents create food and homes from amyloid and carboxyplast–it’s cheaper than shipping up everything from the planet. The space hab is twenty years old, practically ancient technology, with potentially serious problems if the power ever goes out. My favorite: you can print out things, from your printer, such as clothes. No need for a closet, or wearing the same thing everyday! Well, assuming you can afford it.

THE HIGHEST FRONTIER is about a new college co-ed... who is attending school in space. Thoughtful, with a likeable character. Worth the time to read.

The story takes place during the presidential election, and I’d probably be more interested in that if I weren’t so numb from the recent onslaught of the current news. But again, Slonczewski handles it well, and makes it an important part of the story. In a way it’s a very timely commentary on the current political climate in the U.S., without being overbearing or agenda-ridden.

In all, it’s a thoughtful book to read, with a likable heroine and some cool concepts. While it took time for me to become immersed in the story, it was worth the time.

  • Recommended Age: 14+, although comprehension might be difficult for readers less experienced with Science Fiction
  • Language: Mild
  • Violence: Minor
  • Sex: Referenced but without detail: rape is referenced; sex with animals is referenced; homosexuality is commonplace


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