REVIEW SUMMARY: Speculation on advances in physics, materials science, computer science, microbiology, biotechnology, botany, politics, climate change, spacefaring, etc., makes this stuffed-full and enjoyable novel feel like a future that could happen.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jenny Ramos Kennedy, scion of the political family, attends her first year at Frontera College on the orbital station Frontera, where she battles single-celled alien ultraphytes, political gamesmanship, social stratification, science v. religion debates, college administration myopia, sexually violent frat boys, printed-out Ebola epidemics, cheating at Quidditch-like Slanball, etc.
PROS: Excellent scientific speculation across many fields; good characterization.
CONS: One major plot line was too obvious; so much speculation seems overwhelming at times.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable, engrossing read and a promising start for a new series.
Much, if not most, contemporary science fiction relies on physics or computer science to ask “What if?” or else it extrapolates one and exactly one area of science or technology, which leads to an unlikely future that looks an awful lot like the present or the past. Joan Slonczewski’s latest novel, The Highest Frontier, speculates about the future in many areas of science and technology, producing a novel about a future that feels like it could happen. This highly thought-out premise complements an interesting plot, good characterization, plus elements of politics, religion, the future of the internet, climate change, and college life to produce a wide-ranging, well-written novel.
About a century in the future, Jenny Ramos Kennedy, the scion of a large and powerful political family, matriculates to undergraduate studies at Frontera College, where higher education means high above the clouds. Frontera is a high-orbit space habitat, far above the ravaged Dead Zones of the dying Earth. The Highest Frontier covers Jenny’s freshman year at Frontera College.
The Frontera habitat also includes a casino and a frontier town (Mount Gilead) of religious fundamentalists who cling to the belief in a Biblical and impenetrable Firmament above the Earth and a geocentric universe, despite the fact that their habitat should be relatively close to bumping along said Firmament. While a few scholarship students are admitted to Frontera College, the majority of the student body are rich, some are idle, and a few are perverse.
Kennedys in Space
The backdrop to Jenny’s story is the US presidential election, which introduces politics into the novel’s mix. Jenny is politically well-connected, as her name would suggest. Presidential candidates, mostly relatives, call her to divulge their running mate choices before they publicly announce them, though she assures us that she’s far down the list of perhaps a hundred such calls. Candidates also vie for her endorsement at conventions. One is reminded of the scrutiny and access that John F. Kennedy, Jr., received.
Jenny’s personal story is that her twin brother Jordi was killed in Manhattan by a methane gas wave. It is hypothesized that methane gas could be released due to global warming, perhaps large amounts all at once, from the methane clathrate compounds buried in sea reserves and permafrost, commonly known as the “methane clathrate gun hypothesis.” Jenny grieves for Jordi as a sibling would, perhaps a little more than is healthy. To remedy this, her parents have a team of therapists that have taken up residence inside Jenny’s head and manifest themselves as Marilyn Monroe, which is amusing not only because Marilyn was probably not a paragon of mental stability but also because she was connected with the 1960’s Kennedy clan. “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” indeed.
Jenny is simultaneously inured to and uncomfortable with her unsought, unearned position. Her deceased twin brother, Jordi, was being groomed as the successor to the political dynasty. She, on the other hand, has an unfortunate mutation that was accidentally introduced when she and her brother were being cultured in their Petri dishes. Her mutation causes public mutism, so she freezes up when asked to speak in public, a disabling handicap for a Kennedy scion.
Pauline Theology vs. Linus Pauling
Jenny’s public mutism problem leads some people to speculate that she is a “pauline,” a woman genetically engineered before birth to be meek and speak only when spoken to, to be “in silence and subjugation,” according to the very conservative Christian doctrines of Paul of Tarsus. Many paulines resolve this inability to speak first by coughing loudly, thus eliciting a comment, after which they are able to reply, which is a lovely social workaround to a genetic problem.
One minor character, Leora, is a pauline who blossoms when she (quite literally) expands her horizons. Her minor character arc is a great exploration of genetics versus free will. In the sequels to this novel, I hope that Leora will have a role.
The conflict between religion and science forms another core conflict in this novel, both in the persons of “paulines” and in the proximity of Frontera College and the fundamentalist town of Mount Gilead.
In The Highest Frontier, internet interfaces are streamed directly into one’s brain via a headband. The dominant system is called Toynet, and thus everything associated with it has the prefix “toy,” such as windows have been renamed “toyboxes,” there is “ToyNews,” remote classes are offered by “toyHarvard” or “toyMIT,” webmasters are called “toymakers,” and election results are tabulated on “ToyVote.” It gets a little coy and redundant, but one can certainly picture a future with iMIT, GoogleVote, or MSNBC (wait a minute . . . ) so it’s not a huge stretch. The Toy network controls nearly all information with sinister Big Brother-like efficiency.
As much fun as this novel is for all these reasons, the speculations about microbiology make The Highest Frontier really interesting. Genetic engineering in Slonczewski’s future has hit its heyday. Cables for the space elevators are made from filamentous, living anthrax bacteria that have had their pathogenic genes spliced out, which is just a fun touch.
Scientists are currently pretty cavalier with creating transgenic microbes, and this attitude has, to some extent, generalized to the other kingdoms in Slonszewski’s future. Mini-elephants and mini-deer roam Frontura. Selection of genetic traits in children from parents, from other relatives, and from celebrities is commonplace among those who can afford to do so. (I wonder if those fictional source-DNA celebrities mentioned in the book, such as Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman, patented their DNA and thus are earning royalties on it.)
The Aliens: Ultraphytes
There are indeed aliens in this novel, called “ultraphytes” or “ultra,” for short. Ultra is a non-sentient microbe from space that first splashed down in Utah. Ultra individuals are gigantic (for a microbe), single-celled halophilic organisms that can merge into a colony to form a more complex organism, like coral or a biofilm. At the beginning of the novel, known forms of ultra are composed of small, odd numbers of cells, like seven or thirteen. You know that it’s only a matter of time before they form new types of multicellular organisms.
The ability to focus “brainstream,” or brain waves, is learned but the ability is innate, and Jenny is good at it. So good, in fact, that she plays collegiate “slanball,” a game whereby a ball is maneuvered by brain power alone in a zero gravity cage suspended in the center of a rotating space habitat. Think of it as Quidditch without brooms or hands.
The word “slan” is an homage to the 1940 science fiction story Slan by A. E. Van Vogt, in which telepaths (“Slans,”) who were bred to be genetically superior, are now shot on sight. Other references to classic SF include mentions of Foundation founder Hari Seldon. These little post-modern tidbits are handled exactly as they should be: like an author winking at a knowledgeable reader without detracting from the story.
The Highest Frontier is certainly worth your time. It’s a fascinating, in-depth take on the middle-near future and the first novel in what promises to be a superior series. I highly recommend it. The Highest Frontier can and should be read now; you don’t have to wait for the next installment. It’s a fun read, even when considered as a stand-alone project.
Some Quibbles, Some Notes
That said, there are a few things that detracted from the overall novel.
First, there is a central mystery concerning Jenny’s autistic college roommate, Mary Dyer. The solution to the mystery is revealed around page 378 (hardcover edition), but I figured it out and considered its ramifications about page 110. It was pretty obvious. The characters seemed like dunces for not figuring it out much sooner. I thought that perhaps my hypothesis was a red herring, but the solution is telegraphed far too obviously, far too soon, and the cover story isn’t convincing. This is a flaw in the novel, but there are so many story lines and conflicts that this does not destroy the novel. If the reader was meant to figure it out, there needed to be more red herrings to explain why the characters didn’t figure it out sooner.
Another, smaller problem in the novel is Jenny’s reaction and the college’s reaction after a sexual assault by rufie. Jenny’s immediate reaction is believable, but the physical and psychological ramifications for her seem to ripple away much too quickly. She just isn’t that concerned, especially for someone portrayed as somewhat sexually inexperienced. Ditto for the college’s official reaction to her assault. I think most universities currently mandate a more stringent response to a sexual assault, including calling the police and convincing the victim to get medical treatment, if not collecting evidence at the emergency room. Hopefully, a century or so in the future, rape will be further frowned upon. Jenny and the university both have more strident reactions to the introduction of mosquitoes into the Frontera habitat than to the rape.
Like other series in which each novel covers an entire school year of the main character’s life (Harry Potter, for example, among other “school novels,”) the comparatively lengthy time of the novel has its limitations. A year is a long time in novel. In addition, the forthcoming election, around which a major plot revolves, is known to be coming from a long way off. The last-minute shuffle at the end seems forced. This is a limitation of the school-year genre rather than a specific limitation of this novel, but it is a hurdle that Slonczewski must jump. She clears it, but barely.
Note from the Author
I have mentioned a couple of times that The Highest Frontier is the first book of a series, as any school-year novel begs to be. There are many interesting, well-considered ideas that warrant further exploration.
As for future books in the series, Dr. Slonczewski says, “I am working on a book about Jenny’s sophomore year, in which she visits Cuba to study ultraphytes and discovers that they have evolved to grow in the ocean-but what are they up to? Meanwhile, the Frontera College president faces a crisis even worse than alien invasion.”
I’m looking forward to it.
TK Kenyon is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, novelist, award-winning short story writer, pharmaceutical industry regulatory consultant, technical writer, molecular virologist, neuroscientist, minivan-driving mom, happy wife, cat slave, surfer, high-handicap golfer, scuba diver, gourmet chef, mostly vegetarian, chocolatier, gardener, capsaicin addict, caffeine junkie, celiac, Apache and Scot descendant, native Arizonan, Connectikite, nouveau feminist, political moderate with extremist tendencies, radical atheist, Buddhist-curious, occasional UU, Tamil Ayer Brahmin Hindu by marriage, ex-actress, grown-up child beauty queen, PhD (Microbiology, molecular virology), MFA (Creative Writing, fiction), BS (in so many ways), ASU Sun Devil, Iowa Hawkeye, UPenn Quaker, and always looking for something interesting to do. More at http://tkkenyon.com/.