Joan Slonczewski’s latest science fiction novel is THE HIGHEST FRONTIER, which is a near-future novel based mostly on a space habitat located above the Earth called Frontera. The Earth, especially North America, has largely been ruined by climate change, which is why most of the best scientists, artists, and even athletes have removed to various space habitats. Frontera is just one of a number of space habitats; it’s home to an excellent college, to one of the world’s best slanball teams (slanball reminds me a great deal of Quidditch, except without magic and by using gravitational fields instead), to a number of farmers, and to some mind-blowing science, particularly of the physical and biological variety.
You see, the near future is a very strange place. People get to and from the various space habitats by going up strands of anthrax — harnessing a dangerous biological weapon this way is a nice touch — while taxes now get “played” at casinos, and there’s an upper limit as to how much you’re allowed to lose. Biological science has taken a gigantic leap forward, partly due to an “alien invader” called ultraphyte, a type of creature that seems infinitely adaptable and is usually deadly to human beings in any form.
The heroine of our tale is Jennifer “Jenny” Ramos Kennedy — yes, of that Kennedy family, though she tends to think more of the Ramos side of the family as they’ve been the more recent occupants of the White House — a multifaceted young woman with unusual skills. Jenny is a trained first-responder — meaning she has advanced first aid skills, which are aided by advanced technology — and as ultraphyte has been called, more or less, one of the top “enemies of the state,” she’s used to decisively dealing with ultraphyte in a way that leaves behind as little as possible (as the wily little devils can seemingly reconstitute themselves out of the thin air, though in actuality they need salt and a lot of it in order to reproduce and thrive). And because Jenny’s recently lost her twin brother, Jordi, due to misadventure, she’s hurting, alone, scared, and sad in short order — yet she’s bound and determined to improve her life by going off-world to Frontera, which shows an unusually steely set of nerves.
At Frontera University, Jenny studies under biologist and Nobel Prize winner Sharon Abaynesh; this is much more important to the plot than it seems at first, as Abaynesh is one of the few people who seem to realize that the ultraphyte are more than invaders — they are sentient, sapient beings who may well not be as opposed to humans as they seem.
Along the way, Jenny has her first romance; she plays a lot of slanball; she gets frustrated because she “only” gets an A (grade inflation has taken place, and now she expects an A-triple-plus on everything or she figures she’s falling short); she works on her public speaking skills, as she knows she’s deficient in that area and as the scion of a political family, that just won’t do. And she interacts with just about anyone who’s anyone on Frontera, partly because of her high social standing, but mostly because it’s integral to the plot that she do so.
Look. This is a book that’s really high on ideas. The way the Internet is newly-conceived as “ToyNet” is a brilliant touch. The space habitat (“spacehab” in Slonczewski’s parlance) is well-conceived, and seems like something that would actually work. The way real food is prized and coveted — and is a rare treat — makes sense due to its scarcity in a world that’s now low on natural resources. And the overall, overarching plot makes sense, which I was glad to see.
But there was something about this book for all its brilliance that bothered me, and that’s the fact that our heroine, Jenny, just wasn’t strong enough to hang the plot around. While I liked her and often empathized with her, I kept thinking that the only reason Jenny was the main character here was because Slonczewski wanted to write a young adult novel, thus Jenny had to be the main character. And that’s just not good enough.
I’ve read Slonczewski’s other novels, including the John W. Campbell award-winning A DOOR INTO OCEAN, which is outstanding and a must-read. She is a scientist by training and temperament, which is why the science of the space habitat is first-rate and why the overall near future world is worked out to the Nth degree, even to the point of Cuban-inflected Spanish loan words due perhaps to the fact that both Puerto Rico and Cuba are now part of the United States of America.
But when you have a main character who, while likable, just can’t hold my interest, that’s not acceptable for a writer of Slonczewski’s caliber. And that’s why, despite the fact that the world-building and overall scientific background of THE HIGHEST FRONTIER are uniformly excellent, I feel this novel fell a bit short of the mark.
Scientific knowledge (AKA, “Is this world plausible?”): A-plus.
Overall grade: A very generous B.
My advice is to wait for this one to come out in paperback, or possibly get it from your local library; while the ideas here are outstanding, the characterization isn’t. And that’s a shame.
— reviewed by Barb