Joan Lyn Slonczewski is a microbiologist at Kenyon College and a science fiction writer. She is the first since Fred Pohl to earn a second John Campbell award for best science fiction novel, "The Highest Frontier" (2012); her previous winner was "A Door into Ocean" (1987). "The Highest Frontier" invents a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from deadly ultraphytes by Homeworld Security. According to Alan Cheuse at NPR, her book invents "a worldwide communications system called Toy Box that makes the iPhone look like a Model-T Ford."
Slonczewski's classic "A Door into Ocean" depicts an ocean world run by genetic engineers who repel an interstellar invasion using nonviolent methods similar to Tahrir Square. In her book "Brain Plague," intelligent microbes invade human brains and establish microbial cities. She also authors with John W. Foster the leading microbiology textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton).
This is a story about a young girl going to college so it includes teenage love, dealings with teachers and unruly fraternity boys, the whole coming of age thing. But that is the simple part what if you believe your roommate is an alien? Or that your professor is trying to brainwash you? Or that you fear the space station will be flooded? Glad to know you are not crazy?
Joan Slonczewski is new to me so I did not have any preconceptions beyond the blurb which made me think of a strong girl going to college on a space station possible with some aliens involved.
Jenny comes across a sweet easy-to-like main character. She is a spawn of the Ramos Kennedy family which are deep into the politics of the time, on both sides. The political part felt a bit too true and reflects things easy to imagine of our own time. I am talking from the far north of Scandinavia here.
Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Yes there are small mini-elephants in Jenny's room now and then but I am talking about the aliens. Earth is to a large part devastated by ecological calamities but on top of that it is being infested by alien RNA based life, mostly as a thick layer over the Great Lakes but they are changing fast much like viruses. The Ultraphytes or Ultras are important to the story and the whole series. Jenny's parallel between smallpox decimating the Indians even before they saw a white man and the Ultra was fascinating and a bit scary.
I like reading about Jenny dealing with it all and doing ordinary teenage things too. The ordinary things make the futuristic world more tangible. And there lots of fascinating futuristic concept to take in. They have printers that can print out almost anything including real viruses.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
It has been ten years since Joan Slonczewski's THE CHILDREN STAR, but the author is back with a bang with the recently released THE HIGHEST FRONTIER. Delving into a rather new arena with a story focused on the exploits of a girl born to leaders, cloned from leaders, and destined to be a leader as she enters her first year of college in a space habitat orbiting Earth, Slonczewski enters a new frontier for her writing easily, but not without a few hiccups.
I should preface this review by saying that Slonczewski is a microbiology professor by trade, and it does show in her writing. Several of her books have been about sentient microbes. This one, however, is rather tame in setting by comparison. About 100 years in the future, Earth has become decimated by climate change and pollution, and the only safe haven left is a network of space habitats in orbit around the Earth. Religious leaders have proclaimed this the Firmament, God's territory. Jenny Ramos Kennedy is girl who lost her twin brother and has spent the past few months trying to overcome her mental issues, fears, and inability to speak publicly before coming to Frontera College orbiting high above the Earth. Paired with her story is a Presidential race and the spread of an alien organism called the Ultraphyte which had helped in the decimation of Earth, releasing cyanide and killing thousands.
The one place where Slonczewski never falters is her attention to biological detail, but at the same time, this does have a tendency to draw out the book and slow the pacing down to a crawl. There are even biology classes in the book which could substitute for a real biology class, with such detail that, despite having been a biology major for a year (bad idea), I was confused.Read more ›
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