01/07/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: TOR/Forge. 443 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (US), $31.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2956-1.
check out website: www.tor-forge.com
Joan Slonczewski is a Professor of Biology at Kenyon College in Ohio, USA. She also writes Science Fiction novels. 'The Highest Frontier' is her seventh novel, following an eleven year gap since 'Brain Plague' came out in 2000. Given her professional pedigree, I was expecting the book to be full of hard science and I wasn't disappointed. Does it tell a good story, though?
The novel recounts the first year at college for Jennifer Ramos Kennedy. So far, so boring you might think. However, the year is 2112 and the college, called Frontera, is the first educational establishment in space, sitting in a geosynchronous orbit some 36,000 kilometres above the state of Ohio. The Earth is dying due to a combination of runaway global warming and the invasion of a borderline-sentient extra-terrestrial animal species known as ultraphytes. Also, Jenny is a member of the famous Kennedy clan, which has continued its political lineage into the twenty-second century, with Jenny's grandmother and great-grandmother both having been President of the United States. Jenny herself is talked about as a future President and is already a seasoned political operator, although she suffers from a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for her to meet new people, rather a problem for a would-be politician.
The challenges that Jenny has to overcome at Frontera are many and varied. Her college courses on biology and philosophy are both much more demanding than what she's used to from high school. She also plays slanball, a game not unlike Quidditch, for the college team and there are frequent practice sessions. She is a qualified first aider, something in short supply at a college where half the students seem to see alcohol-related injuries as par for the course. Finally, she is heavily involved in the upcoming presidential elections, being repeatedly asked for interviews and comments on the weekly debates between the presidential candidates and, rather amusingly, their spouses, too. All these demands on her time mean that Jenny is frequently very tired, which perhaps explains why she seems to be rather slow on the uptake at times.
As the year progresses, however, the issues that Jenny has to worry about get larger and more worrying. Her room-mate, Mary, is supposed to be an autistic orphan but is much too strange for that. Jenny eventually starts to worry whether Mary is even human. When Jenny finds out that the orbiting spacehab in which Frontera is located could flood in the event of a power failure, she really starts to panic as her twin brother was drowned a year earlier whilst trying to save others during a flooding incident. Most worryingly, her biology teacher appears to be busy trying to breed ultraphytes, even though their possession is a criminal offence. Can Jenny work out who her friends and enemies are and get through her first year without any major disasters?
Given the author's professional background, it is no surprise that this is a novel of ideas. Slonczewski uses the story to explore a very interesting speculative future for humanity, where most children are clones created in a test tube in order to avoid inherited genetic disorders and to enable them to live in the increasing hostile environment on Earth, where infectious diseases abound. Strangely, these clones often seem to suffer from compensating disorders of their own, such as autism. Why such problems can't also be engineered out is not made clear. She takes the current state of American politics to its logical conclusion. The Unity Party, the old Democrats, are scientific rationalists who suffer from their wish to be liked by everyone. The Centrist Party, the old Republicans, are rigorous Roman Catholic ideologues who have returned to pre-Enlightenment views of the Universe, asserting that the Earth is the centre of everything, that it is surrounded by a solid sphere called the Firmament on which illusory planets, stars and galaxies are painted and that the despoliation of the Earth is God's revenge for our wickedness and presages the imminent second coming of Christ. Nut jobs indeed. Slonczewski uses these ideas and others, such as the use of 3D printing technology to print out everything, from food to clothes to furniture, to build an interesting and believable future world.
On the other hand, there were a few things I was less convinced by. Given that the entire novel revolves around Jenny, I can't say I ever really got to know her as a person. Much of what she does throughout the novel tells us a lot about Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, the dutiful daughter of a great political dynasty but very little about Jenny, the first year student. Also, what little we do learn about her as a person gives a mixed impression. She is clearly kind-hearted and intelligent but she can also seem out of touch, elitist and already too controlled by the need to maintain the right image in a twenty-four hour media world.
Equally, Frontera College itself displays some interesting contradictions. It is a liberal arts college, presumably modelled on the one at which the author works, yet many if not most, of its students are the sons and daughters of the political elite. It's not clear whether the college is aiming to be elitist or inclusive. It seems to want to be both, but this doesn't really come off. Also, the spacehab includes an agricultural community living cheek by jowl with the students but there is very little interaction between the two communities. This is the normal 'town versus gown' problem down on Earth but seems rather strange when both communities are isolated on a small spacehab a very long way from Earth.
One other story element that I found particularly disappointing was the point at which Jenny is possibly raped by a fellow student when she unwisely attends a frat-boy party on her own. It is unclear whether she is actually raped or just assaulted, as she bangs her head and loses consciousness early in the encounter. However, very little is made of this potentially huge incident, surely as important in personal terms as any other single thing that happens to Jenny in the story and it is largely forgotten within a couple of chapters. This felt like something that was added late in the story's development, not leaving enough time to properly explore the logical consequences in full. I'd rather it had been left out completely, rather than being dealt with in a half-hearted and ineffective way.
'The Highest Frontier' is an interesting novel about one young woman's coming of age in a challenging future world. It is marred by a lack of characterisation of the protagonist but makes up for this with the wealth of ideas it explores. I enjoyed it.
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