Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski
Published : Tor 2011
Awards Won : John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book :

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.”

This is my 8th novel for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge over at World's Without End, which means that I've never read anything by Joan Slonczewski before.

My Thoughts:

The Highest Frontier is basically a story of daily life, focusing on the activities of a freshman college student and the school's president. The timescale is roughly the first semester of Jenny's college career. She spends her days involved with schoolwork, research, social activities, volunteer work, local and national politics, and slanball, a zero-gravity sport where the ball is handled by thought power. President Dylan Chase, on the other hand, primarily deals with administrative problems and his relationship with his partner, who is the local pastor. There are tons of interesting scenes and subplots, but I kept expecting the story to build up into something more. While there was something of a climactic event near the end of the book, I didn't feel like it tied everything together. I'm left wondering if this is going to be the first of a series, and the more intriguing issues will be further explored in future installments.

A lot has gone into building Jenny and Dylan's world, far more than I can possibly discuss in detail here. Some aspects seemed spot on as an extrapolation from the present, such as the obsession with social media and constant connectivity (to Toynet, the next generation internet), as well as the weakening of academic curricula. Other things seemed a bit strange, like that a primary divide between political parties was the religious point of whether or not space existed beyond Earth's moon. I also found the cultural obsession with Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman a little odd, considering that their heyday is already roughly half a century in the past. The environmental degradation of the Earth is pretty scary, as is the precariousness of life in space habitats, despite their Star-Trek-replicator-like amyloid technology.

There are many characters in the story, but many seemed to have a certain childish quality. I think that this might be an aspect of the future culture, with its Toynet escapism and coddling academics. Despite the dangerous decline of Earth, technology seemed to allow most of the rich to hide safely in their fantasies. Most of the students of Frontera, like Jenny, come from extremely wealthy and well-connected families, but we see some of them come out of their sheltered bubbles as they get to know the poor settlers in the nearby farming colony. I initially found Jenny to be an irritating heroine, mostly due to her extremely privileged life and her condescension towards others. As time went on, though, I think she showed herself to be a genuinely good kid, who just needed to learn more about the world and other people. Even if the story ultimately felt like just a series of events, it was fun to watch Jenny slowing maturing.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The science-fiction-daily-life story of The Highest Frontier follows Jenny's first semester of college, as well as the college president's life in the same time period. The world was very detailed, and while some aspects seemed a little farfetched, others were a disenheartening extrapolation of current trends. There are tons of subplots that are interesting in their own rights, but I never felt like they gelled into a complete story. I am wondering if there is a sequel planned, which might include a continuation of topics such as Earth's deteriorating environment, the difficulties of life in orbit, and the developing situation concerning the alien ultraphytes.   


  1. Yeh, I agree with you. I was disappointed in the book. Overall I expected more, considering the various subject matter and themes. It really struggled to hold my attention. From all the WOGF books I've read, this took the longest to finish. Considering I also read Atwood's "The Blind Assassin" this was quite a feat :-)

    1. Yeah, it had a lot of interesting pieces, but I just kept feeling like none of them were really going anywhere, and they never really seemed to. I have never read Atwood's "The Blind Assassin"... it sounds like you wouldn't recommend it?

  2. I quite enjoyed Blind Assassin, but it's not science fiction.