Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski

I picked up The Highest Frontier because of a book jacket blurb comparing it to Robert Heinlein’s young adult novels. My dad's old copies of Heinlein were what turned me on to speculative fiction in the first place, so I figured anything similar was worth a try.

I wasn't wrong. Here’s the story. Jenny Ramos-Kennedy (yes, those Kennedys) has recently lost her twin brother.  She's leaving the security of her family’s well-guarded compound to attend college in space. Frontera College, established by an old family friend, is an experiment. Located in a space habitat (hab) in Earth orbit, it has a terraformed environment complete with running water, trees, and miniature animals. Contrast that with Earth, where a warming globe is creating vast swaths of desert.  Oh, and the desertification is beng helped along by huge salt-loving alien microbes known as ultraphytes, which are spreading like kudzu.

In addition to coping with the normal college freshman issues and the challenges of her famous family, Jenny has to deal with a very unusual roommate who just might be an alien, a potential boyfriend who is actually the product of random reproduction, not genetic manipulation (shocking!), a political conspiracy, experimental plants that seem to be able to make people wiser, and more.

Jenny is a great character, but what really makes this book stand out for me is the worldbuilding. Slonczewski does a wonderful job projecting out current trends into a future that is terrifying and inspirational and very, very plausible. She doesn’t shy away from addressing the ramifications of immigration, a deadlocked political system, unchecked climate change, and the development of a virtual immersion technology that makes privacy a thing of the past.

I’m not a hard science person. Slonczewski, a microbiology professor, definitely is, and she’s able to communicate it in a way that I, whose last science class was ‘rocks for jocks’ back in the 80’s, can comprehend. That’s a gift. So is this book, the first in a new series by this Campbell Award winning author.

Check out The Highest Frontier from your local VBPL location.  For more stories of coming of age in outer space, try Joe Haldeman's Marsbound trilogy, starting with Marsbound, If you want to get another take on the near future from a grand master of science fiction, check out Fred Poh'ls All The Lives He Led

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