The Highest Frontier – Joan Slonczewski

About the book
One of the most respected writers of hard SF, ithas been more than ten years since Joan Slonczewski’s last novel. Now shereturns with a spectacular tour de force of the college of the future, inorbit. Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a girl from a rich and politically influentialfamily (a distant relation descended from the famous Kennedy clan),whose twin brother has died in an accident and left her bereft, is aboutto enter her freshman year at Frontera College.

Frontera is an exciting school built with mediamoney, and a bit from tribal casinos too, dedicated to educating the best andbrightest of this future world. We accompany Jenny as she proceeds through herearly days at school, encountering surprises and wonders and some unpleasantproblems. The Earth is altered by global warming, and an invasive alienspecies called ultraphytes threatens the surviving ecosystem. Jenny is beingraised for great things, but while she’s in school she just wants to doher homework, go on a few dates, and get by. The world that Jenny isliving in is one of the most fascinating and creative in contemporary SF, andthe problems Jenny faces will involve every reader, young and old.

Publishedon: September 13, 2011
Publishedby: Tor
Thanks to Tor for sending me a copy of this book to review.
(Before I start this review, let me apologize for my silence last week. I learned a very important parenting lesson: When you baby is sick, your whole world stops until she feels better.)
The Highest Frontier was a book I wasvery excited to receive and started reading it almost immediately. I got abouthalfway through the first chapter before I had to put it aside until I was moreup to the task. With a newborn it was just too hard for me to sift through allthe new SciFi concepts and understand exactly what was happening. That beingsaid, once I did get my, “holy crap I have a baby now,” bearings about me thebook itself was incredibly easy to become absorbed in.
The Highest Frontier is rather hardSciFi book. The first chapter is full of concepts and ideas that will beforeign to the reader. Only through continuing with the book itself will manyof these ideas and concepts become clear as Slonczewski fills in the details asshe goes. While this may frustrate some readers, it’s worth pushing throughthese somewhat challenging parts because the real meat and potatoes of the bookfollows quickly on confusion’s heels.
Slonczewskistarts The Highest Frontier with anabsorbing bang and keeps that tone throughout the work. The quickly paced,tightly wound plot coupled with her fluid, somewhat understated writing managesto bring Slonczewski’s vision alive makes TheHighest Frontier an incredible read which will be a challenge for individualsto put down.
Themain character, Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a young adult descendent of twoimportant presidential lineages (you’ll, undoubtedly, recognize one of them) andis an interesting woman to follow. In TheHighest Frontier, Jennifer starts her first year in college at Frontera, aman-made habitat orbiting the earth. Jennifer’s twin brother died from a tidalwave caused by a methane quake and his death scarred Jennifer deeply. She has ateam of psychologists to help her cope with the death of her brother. Jenniferalso has a rare disorder where she has problems speaking in public, arecognized handicap in a world where nearly everyone seems perfect. Thus, she’sdifferent from the average person which makes her life and her, as a person,incredibly interesting to read about.
Dueto the fact that Jennifer is the descendent of two political lines, The Highest Frontier focuses more onpolitics than might be expected. For example, to help throw support behind herfamily’s chosen candidate (the Utah governor) at the impending election,Jennifer must be seen eating green Jell-O and discussions with her family, andher own interests often focus on political happenings. On a side note, livingin Utah, I was impressed that Slonczewski knew that green Jell-O is Utah’s “officialstate food.” Furthermore, Slonczewski evolved our current political process tofit the times of the world she’s envisioned. For example, instead ofRepublicans and Democrats, there are Centrists and Unity parties. Furthermore,the tax system is different where instead of paying taxes, individuals can“play” their taxes, which basically amounts to gambling.
Frontera,the independent space habitat, is created in answer to the fact that the earthis losing habitable ground due to climate changes and dangerous ultraphyteswhich seem to be taking over the planet. In this vein, it’s obvious thatSlonczewski has an in depth understanding of biology. There are quite a fewbiology terms thrown around which might frustrate and/or confuse some readersdepending on their grasp of that science. Jennifer, for example, is anincredibly talented botanist and her thought processes and discussions oftenfollow that path (as well as politics). For people who have a hard time withthis type of science, the portions of the book that focus on biology might makethe book feel rather bogged down.
The Highest Frontier’s ending was a littledisappointing in the fact that it seemed to wrap up rather quickly and didn’thave impact I was expecting from the rest of the book. Despite that, and theminor frustrations some readers might find regarding biology speak and someconfusing concepts that take time to figure out, The Highest Frontier is quite an amazing, thought provoking bookabout a dystopian earth and how society has evolved to fit that vision.Slonczewski’s world is vibrant and well realized. Every detail of her futurevision is well thought out in riveting detail. The plot is tight and quicklyflowing and Jenny is a wonderful character to follow. Many reviewers predictthis book to be on the short list for many book awards, and I wouldn’t besurprised if that is the case. TheHighest Frontier is a joy to read and highly recommended.

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