Monday, November 7, 2011

The Highest Frontier - Joan Slonczewski

About the book

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.

Published on: September 13, 2011
Published by: Tor
Author’s blog

Thanks to Tor for sending me a copy of this book to review.


(Before I start this review, let me apologize for my silence last week. I learned a very important parenting lesson: When you baby is sick, your whole world stops until she feels better.)

The Highest Frontier was a book I was very excited to receive and started reading it almost immediately. I got about halfway through the first chapter before I had to put it aside until I was more up to the task. With a newborn it was just too hard for me to sift through all the new SciFi concepts and understand exactly what was happening. That being said, once I did get my, “holy crap I have a baby now,” bearings about me the book itself was incredibly easy to become absorbed in.

The Highest Frontier is rather hard SciFi book. The first chapter is full of concepts and ideas that will be foreign to the reader. Only through continuing with the book itself will many of these ideas and concepts become clear as Slonczewski fills in the details as she goes. While this may frustrate some readers, it’s worth pushing through these somewhat challenging parts because the real meat and potatoes of the book follows quickly on confusion’s heels.

Slonczewski starts The Highest Frontier with an absorbing bang and keeps that tone throughout the work. The quickly paced, tightly wound plot coupled with her fluid, somewhat understated writing manages to bring Slonczewski’s vision alive makes The Highest Frontier an incredible read which will be a challenge for individuals to put down.

The main character, Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a young adult descendent of two important presidential lineages (you’ll, undoubtedly, recognize one of them) and is an interesting woman to follow. In The Highest Frontier, Jennifer starts her first year in college at Frontera, a man-made habitat orbiting the earth. Jennifer’s twin brother died from a tidal wave caused by a methane quake and his death scarred Jennifer deeply. She has a team of psychologists to help her cope with the death of her brother. Jennifer also has a rare disorder where she has problems speaking in public, a recognized handicap in a world where nearly everyone seems perfect. Thus, she’s different from the average person which makes her life and her, as a person, incredibly interesting to read about.

Due to the fact that Jennifer is the descendent of two political lines, The Highest Frontier focuses more on politics than might be expected. For example, to help throw support behind her family’s chosen candidate (the Utah governor) at the impending election, Jennifer must be seen eating green Jell-O and discussions with her family, and her own interests often focus on political happenings. On a side note, living in Utah, I was impressed that Slonczewski knew that green Jell-O is Utah’s “official state food.” Furthermore, Slonczewski evolved our current political process to fit the times of the world she’s envisioned. For example, instead of Republicans and Democrats, there are Centrists and Unity parties. Furthermore, the tax system is different where instead of paying taxes, individuals can “play” their taxes, which basically amounts to gambling.

Frontera, the independent space habitat, is created in answer to the fact that the earth is losing habitable ground due to climate changes and dangerous ultraphytes which seem to be taking over the planet. In this vein, it’s obvious that Slonczewski has an in depth understanding of biology. There are quite a few biology terms thrown around which might frustrate and/or confuse some readers depending on their grasp of that science. Jennifer, for example, is an incredibly talented botanist and her thought processes and discussions often follow that path (as well as politics). For people who have a hard time with this type of science, the portions of the book that focus on biology might make the book feel rather bogged down.

The Highest Frontier’s ending was a little disappointing in the fact that it seemed to wrap up rather quickly and didn’t have impact I was expecting from the rest of the book. Despite that, and the minor frustrations some readers might find regarding biology speak and some confusing concepts that take time to figure out, The Highest Frontier is quite an amazing, thought provoking book about a dystopian earth and how society has evolved to fit that vision. Slonczewski’s world is vibrant and well realized. Every detail of her future vision is well thought out in riveting detail. The plot is tight and quickly flowing and Jenny is a wonderful character to follow. Many reviewers predict this book to be on the short list for many book awards, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case. The Highest Frontier is a joy to read and highly recommended.

4.5/5 stars


  1. I love Joan Slonczewski, and have been meaning to get to this one, I'm just so behind on my reading. Have you read any others by her? I really liked Door Into Ocean.

  2. This book is a YA offering that is very hard to take seriously; hard to say why but it annoyed me so badly that the author went on my "never touch again a book by" list