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It's been about a decade since Brain Plague, Joan Slonczewski's last novel, came out, but I'd bet good money that more people remember the author for a novel that's by now, unbelievably, already 25 years old -- the wonderful and memorable A Door into Ocean, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Now, ten years after her last novel, Joan Slonczewski returns with The Highest Frontier, another insightful exploration of hard SF concepts with a thrilling plot and fascinating characters.
Put simply: even after a decade, this book was well worth the wait.
The Highest Frontier is one of those novels that kicks into high gear right from the beginning, throwing a ton of new concepts and terms at the reader and then gradually filling in bits of information until you get your bearings. Just look at the very first chapter, with references to an anthrax-powered space elevator, an Earth-orbiting habitat called Frontera, an alien invasion by cyanide-emitting "ultraphytes," an internet-like system called "Toynet," the Unity and Centrist political parties, the "Cuban Kennedys," and so on. Because of all of this, the first few chapters are both wonderful and a bit bewildering, but fortunately Slonczewski is such a good storyteller that she easily captures the reader's interest until everything starts to come together.
The main character of the novel is Jennifer Kennedy Ramos, a highly intelligent young woman (and a descendant of those Kennedys) who is about to go off to college at Frontera. She's still recovering from the death of her twin brother Jordi, a gifted public speaker who died saving people during a tidal wave caused by a methane quake. Jenny is in some ways quite the opposite of her late twin: she suffers from "public mutism" as a result of a mistake made during her embryonic gene-coding. Because of this, she relies heavily on her press prompt when she has to deal with the media, which is inevitable for the youngest member of a family that has produced several presidents and senators in the past. She's also constantly and invasively monitored by a team of psychologists who track her thoughts and actions after the trauma caused by the loss of her twin brother. It's no wonder that she's excited about being let off her leash to go to college at Frontera, the "highest frontier for knowledge."
Frontera, the setting for most of the novel, is an independent space habitat that orbits the Earth. Frontera is enveloped by a layer of water containing microbes that power the entire complex -- making it, in a way, the opposite of Shora in A Door into Ocean, where everyone lived on the water rather than inside it. The habitat contains the college Jenny will attend, as well as a casino where people can go to "play" their taxes. It also contains a small pioneer settlement, because Earth is rapidly losing habitable ground and it's becoming increasingly clear that evacuation may some day be inevitable. This situation is complicated by the political wrangling between the Unity party, which appears to be a melding of the current Republican and Democratic parties, and the Centrists, who adhere to the pre-Copernican belief that the Earth is the center of the universe, and all the stars are suspended from a "Firmament" that envelops our world. Because of this, space exploration and the search for other inhabitable planets is not very high on the Centrists' agenda, so to speak.
The Highest Frontier has so many dimensions to it, it's hard to classify. Jenny's the point of view character for most of the novel, so in one sense this is a typical coming-of-age story set in the "college of the future." Slonczweski definitely devotes considerable attention to Jenny's progress in college, her selection of classes, her interactions with her professors and with other students, her performance on the college's "slanball" team, a budding romance, a crazy roommate, and so on. It's the story of an extraordinary person pursuing the dream of leading an ordinary life. At the same time, and even though it's initially somewhat masked by the fact that Jenny is so privileged, The Highest Frontier portrays a horrible dystopian future that's in many ways a realistic extrapolation of the present. Even though Jenny's away at college, far from the Death Belts and the disintegrating society on Earth, it's always present in the background. Yet another aspect of the novel is its solid base of hard SF ideas. Given Slonczewski's academic background, you'd probably expect considerable focus on biology, and you'd be right, but she also brings in other sciences both hard and soft, from chemistry to theology, history and political science. Much of the material from Jenny's fascinating interactive tutorials ties into the novel's main themes in subtle and surprising ways. I've rarely read a science fiction novel that so effectively uses ideas from very different scientific branches to approach the same central theme.
Several chapters in the novel are told from the perspective of Dylan Chase, the president of Frontera college, and these chapters offer yet another dimension: what does it take to keep a college running? As you'd expect, political wrangling, approaching alumni for donations, dealing with student organizations and the old "town-gown" conflict all play a role, but Frontera being an SF college set on a space habitat means all of these take on a completely different shape. All of this impacts Jenny's life at college too, making Dylan's chapters fascinating in their own way.
The Highest Frontier frequently plays with the concept of political correctness, and so with the expectations of its readers, in surprising ways. Because of a variety of factors, the "upper class" is often considerably taller than others, but on the news media's screens, everyone's artificially displayed as being the exact same height. The reasons for the height variances are only hinted at later, making what initially seems a silly conceit actually very poignant. As far as other social norms go, things that may be shocking for some people now have become commonly accepted, and others that are almost unimaginable have become merely frowned upon. Compulsive hacking is a registered disability. The first set of conjoined twins have been elected to public office. Technology allows people on the autistic spectrum -- like, in a way, our main character Jenny -- ways of communicating that would now be impossible. At the same time some women have taken vows of silence, becoming "paulines" who take the teachings of St. Paul as they pertain to women literally to heart. The boundaries for what's considered normal by the majority have shifted, and society itself has changed in dramatic ways. Some of these changes are highly meaningful to the story and an integral part of the very deep world-building Slonczewski displays in this novel, but I felt that the playfulness of this aspect of the novel occasionally clashed with its generally grim tone, as if someone cut a few scenes from a comedy (say, PCU) into an otherwise very deep, thought-provoking and frequently cynical story about an all-too-plausible future society.
The only other issue I had with this otherwise excellent novel was its ending. The Highest Frontier slowly works its way towards what I fully expected to be a spectacular climax, and some parts of it definitely deliver, but at one specific point -- which, to avoid spoilers, I won't explicitly describe here -- I felt that it all just became too unlikely and hard to take seriously. From that point on, The Highest Frontier wraps everything up very quickly, rushing to a climax that doesn't have enough substance to balance out the highly original and intelligent story that came before. This is doubly unfortunate for a novel that was built up with such meticulous care and showed so much depth.
Still, aside from these minor complaints, The Highest Frontier is a stunning achievement and easily one of the best pure SF novels I've read this year. Some of its more controversial ideas are sure to spark some lively discussions, but even without this, you'll be hard-pressed to find a science fiction novel with more innovative ideas, fascinating characters and thematic depth in 2011. I wouldn't be surprised to see The Highest Frontier on the short list for many of the major awards next year. Highly recommended.
(This review originally appeared on tordotcom on 9/13/2011.)