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The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski
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The Highest Frontier

by Joan Slonczewski

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Okay, let's get this out of the way: Slonczewski is my favorite writer currently writing works of science fiction. I am highly disposed to adore anything that she writes. But there were so many things going on in this novel that at times even I wondered if she was going to be able to pull it all together in the end. (Spoiler alert: she did.)

The very basics of the story: It's one hundred years in the future. Jenny Kennedy is now the only daughter of a powerful and very political family. Reeling from the death of her twin brother, she chooses to go to college in an orbiting space habitat, billed as ultra-secure. Of course, things are never what they seem.

Things I really loved about this story: It's hard science fiction -- specifically in the field of molecular biology/microbiology/evolution. She plays with some really fascinating ideas here: bioengineering HIV for gene therapy - "Did you take your HIV, dear?", bioengineering plants to mimic human systems, can we produce signaling molecules for humor, piety, wisdom? It's feminist science fiction -- not just a "strong female protagonist," but a variety of female and male characters, in positions of power and without, who are strong, flawed, and gentle in turns, and sometimes all at once.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is fed by Slonczewski's experience as a college department chair. Most of the action in this book takes place at Frontera College. It was really interesting to see issues and crises from the viewpoints of students, professors, administrators, parents, funders al at once. Conflicts of interest that had never occurred to me before were suddenly obvious.

The issue that I'm not sure if I loved, hated, or what was race. Which was complicated -- like it is. This is a future where almost all well-off children are genetically engineered. They may or may not share the same genetic race as their parents. A Quaker couple chooses their two favorite indigenous tribes for the racial characteristics of their twins. "Racism" as we currently know it isn't on display here, though it's definitely not post-prejudice. It's just that prejudice has mostly shifted to if you were engineered or not. There are also a lot of stupid assumptions made by characters of a character who was raised Amish. Oh, and while there are definitely prominent gay characters, there is still some orientation weirdness. And don't even get me started on the gender-performance weirdness of the First Lady debates.

Okay, really. I could write and write and write about this. (If you've read this and want to chat, send me a message!) I have some opinions. But I really loved this, and am wondering if Slonczewski is planning any more novels in this universe. (Some signs seemed to indicate yes, some no.)

No, wait! Two more things! I really loved the exchange of religious ideas in this book. And also the Foundation trilogy shout-outs. Okay. Done. ( )
  greeniezona | Dec 6, 2017 |
Jenny Ramos Kennedy is the heir to two presidential families and a great deal of wealth. After her charming and extroverted twin dies, Jenny feels overwhelmed by the expectations of the world. Seeking to escape them, and to flee her fears of the increasingly frequent natural disasters on Earth, Jenny decides to go to college on a spacehub. There, her botany experiments, social life, and the upcoming elections all create a situation in which Jenny may either take the easy path of non-resistance, or agitate to change the world around her.

I liked the characters, but I thought there were too many view-point characters, with too little attention paid to each. I had the same problem with the plots and the future tech; there were just too many, all jostling for space. Slonczewski is fantastic at creating plausible but currently-fictitious creatures and technology, but I wish there had been better explanations of some of the tech (after numerous arguments between characters about what to do with the solarplates, someone finally explained what they were 200 pages in! Without knowing what they were, all those instances of discussion were meaningless to me.) and fewer biology lessons (I already know the differences between RNA and DNA, but even if I hadn't, that knowledge wasn't pertinent to the story). This felt a bit like a Connie Willis story, actually; I wish it had been a little more focused. My one other concern is that there are whole lines of dialog exclusively in Spanish, with no translation or guide in the back of the book.

All in all, though, this book features fascinating concepts with a likable but unique main character.

Trigger warning: a character is probably raped but doesn't remember it; no details are provided, one character talks about it in a victim-blaming way but the narrative does not support him, and it is not a major part of the book. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
The world Slonczewski has created here is fascinating. A really well done believable near future I wouldn't want to live in.

The story is about Jenny, who has gone away to college. Her college is in orbit. Jenny meets her roommate. Jenny meets a boy. Jenny dates a boy. Jenny has conversations with her parents and relatives. Jenny votes in elections. Jenny plays ball games. Really, that's about all that happens. A year in the life of Jenny. There is no real story, no plot. It's dull, and such a disappointment. Considering how well Slonczewski built her world, it is such a shame she couldn't find a decent story to put into it. ( )
  weesam | Jan 4, 2016 |
The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski

Pros: interesting protagonist; fascinating world-building; thought provoking concepts

Cons: fair amount of repetition, especially at the beginning; several unexplained concepts and items, including one important to the plot

Jennifer Ramos Kennedy’s culture source was her great-grandmother, President Rosa Schwartz. A few months after a family tragedy she’s setting out for Frontera, a university on an orbiting space station. She chose it both because a family friend runs the school but also because it’s free of many of the things plaguing Earth: mosquitos carrying disease, risk of flood and methane quakes, the expanding Death Belt, and the need for DIRG bodyguards. But university life isn’t quite what she expected: her teachers are all a little crazy, her roommate is weird and has an unhealthy affiliation for ultraphytes, the alien plants that crave salt and spread from their landing site in Utah to be a scourge on the world, her slanball coach wants her well rested, a hard thing when she’s volunteering for the understaffed EMS, and there’s so much reading and work to do for classes.

Meanwhile, she’s knee deep in helping the Unity party win the next Presidential election. Jenny doesn’t understand how the Centrist Firmament belief is so strong when people live in space! But things on Earth have reached the point that if change doesn’t come soon, it’ll be too late for the planet. And yet the Centrists want to expand the solar array that’s expanding the Death Belt, intending for people to leave earth in the coming Rapture, relocating to other space stations. Stations that couldn’t possibly hold even a portion of the people on Earth.

And it turns out that Frontera isn’t as free of Earthly disasters as she was led to believe.

There’s very little exposition. You’re thrown into the novel with limited explanations of what things are and how the world has changed from what we currently know. While it’s an entirely character driven novel, something I’m not generally keen on, my interest never waned. There are plot points that pull the story into a thought provoking conclusion, but for the most part the book follows Jenny through her days, questioning the world and the politics that run it.

As a scion of a political family, Jenny knows politics, making her an excellent character to follow. Through her mother and conjoined twin aunts, she’s connected to the upcoming Presidential election; she helps when one of her professor’s runs for mayor; sees the struggle with personnel and supplies as she volunteers for EMS, and more. She also takes two politics courses, one on Teddy Roosevelt and the other on Aristotle and democracy, the lectures for which come up often in the text. The book’s ending questions how politics is done, and if it’s possible to fix a broken system.

The second point of view character, Dylan Chase, is President of the university, and through him we see the difficulties of managing his staff and securing sufficient financing. We also see him dealing with student problems: alcoholism, printer disease hacks, assault, and addiction.

The world-building is top notch: Spanish colloquialisms, tax playing at casinos, unique fashion trends, amyloid (sewage processed by hab shell microbes that’s used to ‘print’ everything from food to clothing to the shelters everyone lives in), the anthrax cables that transport ships between Frontera and Earth, Toynet, Kessler debris, I could go on. The sport of slanball is pretty cool too.

The supporting cast is wide and varied, though it focuses on Jenny’s family, a few professors, close students (including the players of her slanball team) and some of Dylan’s contacts (for his POV scenes). Jenny’s experiences at the school are also varied, from class work to parties to helping build houses for colonists.

The first few chapters contain a fair amount of repetition, especially with regards to Jenny’s family. Which makes it all the more strange that other concepts and terms are left unexplained. You figure out what DIRGs are pretty quick, but I don’t remember the acronym being explained. Similarly, Jenny notices an object on one of her teacher’s desks that affects the plot. She brings it up to another character, implying she knows the relevance of the object, but it’s not until the end of the book that as a reader I figured out what the object was and what it meant.

If you like a lot of character development and world-building in your science fiction, this is a highly entertaining, and sometimes thought provoking, read. ( )
  Strider66 | Aug 4, 2015 |
I was disappointed. I have loved Slonczewski's previous work, and was very much looking forward to this one. However, it went very slowly for me- both because of its length, and its lack of focus.

It would have helped to prioritize the plot elements somewhat. What is this? A story about going to college and living away from home for the first time? one of alien invasion? one of global politics? of culture clashes? a romance? All these were elements, yet none seemed to be especially important compared to the others, and they balanced off with each other to diminish the interest of each thread.

The secondary characters were often quirky, but mostly did not feel well-rounded to me- which is a shame, because that could have made the whole feel more coherent. It did not help that Jenny, our main protagonist, is rather a Mary Sue- she's a super-achiever at nearly everything she tries: studying! original research! emergency medical responding! slanball (the main sport of the day)! politics! her only flaw is that she cannot do public speaking... but she even finds a successful work-around for that.

Also, the world does not hold together for me. If in fact ALL commerce and communications go through Toynet- conveniently developed by Jenny's dad (did I forget to mention she's filthy rich?)- well, that's an obvious problem, and would be undermined, as the internet is, and also opposed rather than embraced by all governments everywhere- especially when it turns out that it's being used to fudge election results. For some reason, no one expresses any second thoughts about all this.

It's all just- odd. I think there might be a couple of really fabulous novels buried in this one... but this one is not one of those. Jargon is not a good substitute for thinking things through.

I know Slonczewski can write far better, and I wish she had here. ( )
  cissa | Jun 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
The Highest Frontier is a tour de force, a full-immersion experience of a strange and bizarre world. This is science fiction for the thinking reader, the reader who’s willing to pay attention and put things together, the reader who doesn’t need everything explained at once or all details instantly spelled out.
 
The Highest Frontier is part extrapolation—both scientific and social—and part mystery, but mostly a superb coming-of-age novel. This is a must-read for all sf fans.
 
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The space lift rose from the Pacific, climbing the cords of anthrax bacteria.
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Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a girl from a rich and politically influential family whose twin brother has died in an accident and left her bereft, is about to enter her freshman year at Frontera College. We accompany Jenny as she proceeds through her early days at school, encountering surprises and wonders and some unpleasant problems. Deadly microbes that caused Aids and anthrax are now being modified to cure disease and grow cables for space elevators. Earth is altered by global warming, and an invasive alien species called ultraphytes threatens the surviving ecosystem.--From book jacket.… (more)

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