If you’re looking for a fantastic science fiction novel that will appeal to both teens and young adults (and up) The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski is a novel written just for you! It’s Slonczewski’s first novel in 10 years, the last one being The Children Star. It’s also the first time I have heard of or read anything by this author, but she writes with the lyrical, poetic skills of a master storyteller. Her novel A Door Into the Ocean was the winner of the John Campbell Award for Science fiction. Her novel, centering on the exploits of the college-bound teen Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a clone related to three different presidents, is a fascinating and page-turning read.
Set around 100 years in the future, The Highest Frontier depicts a future in which the United States is still powerful, but in decline. Solar power has not proven to be the answer to our energy crises, and immense solar panels have actually increased the rate of deserts spreading by attracting too much sunlight the areas affected are called “Death Belts”. Kudzu’s spread throughout New York, taxation is based on a lottery system, and the college habitat Frontera College) in space where Jennifer is enrolled is financed by a Shawnee casino and colonized by a geocentric church.
Though she has been genetically modified, and made immune or has her immunity system strengthened to combat diseases, Jennifer has a fear of public speaking. When pressed, she will, as she is a representative for her famous clan; but, it is not easy for her to do so. Also, she greatly misses her dead twin brother (he died while saving the lives of others after the seawall broke due to a methane quake), who helped guide and inspire her, as well as being a friend to her.
One of the many cool things about this novel, to me, is the concept of the Internet taken to the next level. It’s now accessed through implants into the brain, and is called the Toynet. Her residence is called her “toybox.” Jennifer can be, and often is, interviewed whenever and whever she is, via her interface. Her interviews are then broadcast to people who cast their opinions in polls right at the instant they hear whatever answers Jennifer gives.
One example of this is when Jenny spots an ultraphyte, and is credited with doing “her part to rid the Earth of our planet’s most toxic invader.” Ultraphytes, mobile plants that photosynthesize using the sun’s UV rays, are one of the many things threatening life on Earth. They emit cyanide when confronted or threatened, and in their earlier days, when they surfaced from out of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, they killed lots of people and animals with their noxious emissions.
Like other teens, Jenny loves to play sports, in particular Slanball, which is played in low or Zero G simulated arenas. The game as described by the author sounds like it would be a lot of fun to play. Also, the way people in Slonczewski’s novel have figured out how to engineer anthrax bacteria to form living , self-healing elevator cables that are kilometers long out in space to transport people to the orbiting space colonies is another aspect about the novel I found very interesting, whether it might one day actually be possible or not.
Besides Jenny, two other brilliantly realized characters are her love interest, the Amish boy Tom, and the French hacker, Anouk. She has been banned from Earth for breaking into the government’s computer networks. Though Anouk is incredibly intelligent, she sometimes doesn’t display much common sense. This seems to me to often be the case with people in general, so it seemed to make her character more realistic for me.
The author is a scientist herself, the chair of the biology department of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Like with her other novels, Joan’s scientific knowledge and the research she’s done help make the stories she tells and the worlds she builds within her novels seem very realistic. Sometimes, the science seems to slow down the plot of The Highest Frontier somewhat; but, I can understand that she is trying to make the future Earth she’s writing about seem as realistic as possible.
The Highest Frontier is a fantastic read that anyone who loves reading character-driven Hard SF will want to check out. It’s got characters who are very memorable, especially Jenny. Though Jenny is from a rich and politically powerful family, her emotions and behavior are easy to relate to, and identify with. I highly recommend this novel for fans of excellent science fiction.
–Douglas R. Cobb–