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Review: The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski

>>Sunday, October 30, 2011

Title: The Highest Frontier
Author: Joan Slonczewski
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 443
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Date: September 13th, 2011
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: C+

From Goodreads: 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.

Why did I read this book? I suppose because when I found out this was a book about a college in space, I just had to read it since that's exactly what I would want to do. Go to college in space. How awesome would that be?

Source: Review copy provided by publisher

My Review
I've come away from The Highest Frontier feeling very dichotomous about the book. Overall, I did enjoy this book very much but I alo had some reservations.

I'll start by saying that there are many awesome things Slonczewski did with this story. It follows Jenny Ramos Kennedy, a college student from a family of politicians and presidents, who loves plants and goes to study at Frontera College. Frontera is located in a spacehab ('space habitat') and is accessible by going up an anthrax lift. There we meet many interesting characters: Dylan, the college president and his partner, Father Clare, the college chaplain. Then there's the eccentric roomate, Mary Dryer, and Jenny's best frend, Anouk. One of the advertised benefits of Frontera is that there are no ultraphytes, alien organisms that have been populating on Earth. However, Frontera isn't as perfect as everyone's made it out to be and slowly, Jenny finds out there are issues going on in the spacehab.

Politics and religion is another large part of the book. Through Jenny we witness the presidental election on Earth, mostly between two parties: the religious Centrists who don't believe in outer space and Unity, the part of Jenny's ancestors. What I really enjoyed is the mix of politics and religion in a futuristic world where often times religion is replaced by science. That's not the case here. There are still many conflicts between church and state despite it being around a century in the future.

But the aspect I liked the most about this book is the science. Slonczewski injects this future world with so much interesting and fun concepts that it really kept me reading out of sheer fascination. Biology is a big part of this world, where ultraphytes are mixing DNA with Earth life and Jenny spends a lot of her time with her Life class professor learning about organisms. Everyone wears a diad on their head where they use their brain to navigate the Toyworld, a virtual place where you can chat with people, watch news and basically do anything you could think of.

The only downside that I found to The Highest Frontier is that we don't pass through too much time (about one semester of college) and the story moves at a slow pace. There wasn't a specific plotline. Instead we follow Jenny through school and through her political life, learning as much as we can about this world. I would have liked to see a bigger climax at the end, but I did feel the conclusion was satisfying enough.

Rating: C+
Like I said earlier, I have mixed feelings. I thought this was one of the most interesting and unique science fiction books I ever read and I really appreciate it for that. There isn't always a lot of action or a clear direction in plot, but it's supplemented by grabbing your attention with a myriad of ideas and concepts that Slonczewski has thought up. I would recommend this book for people looking for more hard science fiction with a great side dish of poltics and religion. However, if you're looking for an easy, fast-paced action book with a clear storyline, then this isn't for you.


  1. OK, I'm going to try to comment on this review again (the first time, a couple of weeks ago, didn't work). First off, I'm so jealous that you got this book for review! Slonczewski is one of my favourite writers. Have you read her other books? Given your review, I'm not sure I'll like this (I lean away from hard science fiction as well as politics and religion in fiction, and more towards clear storylines), but hey, it's Slonczewski, so I'm game to try it anyway! (And thanks for being willing to lend it to me!)



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