Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Highest Frontier, by Joan Slonczewski

I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to say about Joan Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier [2011], but then a blog post by the author threw a spanner in the works. See, I thought that The Highest Frontier was intended as a Young Adult book; that's what they said when I first heard of it, on The Coode Street Podcast. 

I was going to talk about how impressed I was with Slonczewski's imagined young adult reader, who I took to be about 15 or 16 years old. Smart, socially and politically aware, interested in science, but of course worried about relationships and taking the first steps into adulthood. I was going to say that I admired Slonczewski for writing to such a reader, but that I thought she might have pitched it just a little too high. I think I would have struggled with this book at that age.

But then I read this blog post, in which Slonczewski writes of her surprise at finding The Highest Frontier in the Young Adult section of the Locus 2011 Recommended Reading List*. And that threw the neat little story I was going to tell about my response to the book into complete disarray!

The Highest Frontier is both hard biological SF, and a school story. It focusses largely around Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a freshman at the Earth-orbiting Frontera College. Born into an influential political family (those Kennedys), her life is a hectic mix of classes, new friends, coming to grips with the death of her twin brother, sport, College professors, and a US Presidential campaign in which her family is intimately involved. 

The book is rich with science fictional ideas. It's like a constant stream of really interesting thought experiments: what if future shock really took hold amongst vast swathes of the (American) population, what if you could genetically engineer for wisdom, what if political parties got so good at manipulating their message that all elections ended in a statistical tie, and dozens more. If you like that sort of thing -- and I do -- then you're going to have fun reading this book.

If that isn't your thing, though, I'm not sure there's enough here to carry you through The Highest Frontier. I felt for much of it that the plot was happening to the characters, rather than being driven by them**. Although the characters were descriptively interesting, in practice they seemed a little flat.

I think The Highest Frontier has a lot in common with many science fiction classics. It's filled with intriguing ideas, wonderfully imaginative, and actively challenges the reader to consider the sort of society we're creating for ourselves. The characters and plotting, however, are less compelling. Lovers of the genre will find a whole lot to enjoy here. Others, perhaps not so much.

* It's perhaps worth mentioning that the hosts of The Coode Street Podcast -- Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe -- are both involved in putting together the Locus Recommended Reading List.

** Although I do wonder if this is a feature of the school story genre. The only other example I've read is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone [1997], and I felt that it too was filled with passive characters.


  1. Just to say, I do appreciate the Locus list; it's great to see YA expand to include challenging material. Publishers often set disappointing limits on YA, so it's great to see Locus go beyond that. :)

  2. Hi Joan -- thanks for popping in to comment. Yes, I certainly got the sense from your post that the surprise was a pleasant one. I hope that The Highest Frontier picks up lots of new YA readers via the Locus list; I'd be very happy to learn that I was underestimating 15 and 16 year olds!