The Highest Frontier

The Highest Frontier - Joan SlonczewskiOne of the most over-used words in book reviews is, I think, “flawed”. All too often it is deployed either as an excuse for the fact that the reviewers can’t pinpoint what they don’t like about the book, or because they think that it is un-cool to actually like what they review so they have to find some negative word to trot out to maintain their credibility. The perfect book doesn’t exist, so to some extent all books have flaws, which makes describing a book as having some a rather pointless thing to say. All words, however, have their uses, and sometimes you find a book that you really want to like, but which has aspects that either irritate you, or you think will irritate others. One such book is The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski.

Before getting into my issues with the book, however, some background is in order. The novel takes place primarily on a large space station that, amongst other things, houses a university (and a Native American casino, of course). The primary viewpoint character, Jennifer Ramos-Kennedy, is in her first year at the college where, because this is a Slonczewski book, she’s majoring in biology. You may think that with a first year college student for a heroine that this book would classify as YA, and I have certainly seen it described as such, but conversations I have been having elsewhere suggest otherwise. Apparently YA should really only feature high school students. Also the book has a few chapters told from the point of view of the college president. This, apparently, is also not done if you want to write real YA, or so I have been told by people who know more about the market than I do.

A rather better description of this might be, “a book written by an adult in the hope that teenagers will read it and learn something from it”. From that you should start to see why I am nervous about recommending the book. There’s a certain preachiness to it that I rather suspect will go down badly with the young people it is aimed at. It also has an awful lot of what one might call plot-driven characterization — that is where characters behave in certain ways, not because it is in their nature to do so, but because the dictates of the plot demand that they should do so. In particular the book commits the cardinal sin of having a Big Secret that the characters don’t cotton on to until very late in the book, but which is screamingly obvious to anyone who has read more than a handful of SF novels.

This worried me for some time, but eventually I found a way of approaching the book that allowed me to accept these issues while also enjoying its inventiveness and political arguments. I think it helps a lot if you read it as political satire. It isn’t really that funny, but I think it was supposed to be, and certainly there is an awful lot of exaggeration for effect. A quick look at the future in which it is set will make the point.

We are several decades into the future. The Earth has been devastated by global warming, and by mankind’s reaction to it. The USA is even more politically dysfunctional than it is at present. The Democrats have been succeeded by something called the Unity party. They are opposed by the Centrists, whose name derives not from moderate policies, but from the fact that belief that the Earth is the center of the universe is a core foundation of their policies. In every other way the Centrists behave like present-day Republicans, and Unity like present-day Democrats.

Our heroine, Jenny, is a descendent of two great American political families: the Kennedys (naturally), and the Ramos family, who are Cuban by descent. Cuba joined the USA after the people of the island kindly provided a home for the inhabitants of drowned Florida. Jenny is also ferociously smart. She’s probably been on smart drugs all her life, and has been genetically tweaked to give her all sorts of advantages in life. Not all of the students are this clever. At one point Jenny teaches a remedial math class, where we discover that some of the kids have trouble with complicated ideas such as negative numbers. (And given that I read a book review recently where the reviewer complained that factorials were advanced math that a casual reader couldn’t be expected to understand, that’s not too far off the mark.)

If anyone reading this review doesn’t believe that the USA has class politics I suggest that they read The Highest Frontier. It might exaggerate the issues to a ridiculous extent, but they are still issues. One of the reasons for having Jenny as the heroine of the book is that only a Washington insider would have the power to do the things she does. Jenny knows the college president as “Uncle Dylan”. That’s rather useful when you get in trouble with the college authorities.

Jenny’s best friend at college is Anouk Chouiref, the daughter of the European Finance Minister. Being from a high-ranking political family, she too is rich enough to be smart. She’s also a devout Muslim because, as every American knows, Europe is already on the verge of being taken over by Muslims and will be under Sharia law in a year or two.

There’s more, of course. There’s a lot of commentary on the evils of frat boys, and the fact that colleges are unwilling to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by students in case it gives the college a bad name. There’s a hot new college sport known as Slanball, in which the participants move the ball by brain power alone. The book is worth a recommendation for the cheek of that alone.

One of the best ideas Slonczewski has is that of “taxplaying”. No one pays taxes any more. Everyone knows that taxes are evil. But gambling is hugely popular, and a large proportion of the profits made by the casinos goes towards good causes that the government manages. Respectable citizens make sure that they are seen gambling away a significant proportion of their income. Does anyone know if this has been done before in an SF novel?

The current Unity candidate for the presidency is a lesbian. The Centrists try to upstage this by picking a candidate who is a conjoined twin. The President is an idiot, but he has an evil genius VP known only as Dick The Creep. All sorts of innovative tricks are used to prevent people from voting, including the cunning idea of requiring them to use pen and paper instead of computers. Most importantly, however, there is War Without End.

This war is not against Muslims, or Communists, or indeed anyone human. It is against “Ultra”, a plant-like alien life form that landed in Salt Lake in Utah some time ago (probably after hitching a ride on an asteroid) and is now proceeding to colonize the planet. This gives the Centrists every excuse they need to declare War on Nature. Which, of course, brings us back to biology, because there is actually a real SFnal concept buried in all of this parody.

Jenny’s favorite lecturer at the college is Sharon Abaynesh, a genius biologist with a passionate interest in plant intelligence. We know how intelligence works in humans, but how might it work in something more like a plant that might have multiple heads on one body, or in a colony organism such as a coral (or Ultra)? Abaynesh wonders whether such organisms might have evolved a means of ensuring wise collaboration between members of a social unit rather that the foolish greed we observe in animals, particularly a certain species of primate. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Overall, there’s a lot you can get out of this book, provided that you are a) not a Republican, b) are not a teenager, or at least are immune to being preached at, and c) are not expecting a sane world inhabited by rational characters. You may also enjoy the book is you believe that the USA has already become a ridiculous parody of itself.

5 thoughts on “The Highest Frontier

  1. Well, there you go: a complete accounting of why I like this book so very much. I am a) not a Republican; b1) not a teenager; b2) immune to being preached at; and c) not expecting a sane world. And now I have a pretty complete description of myself, heretofore unavailable.

    Except that, really, none of that has much to do with why I like the book (although rather a lot to do with why I didn’t hate it too much to read it). I thought it used the complete disequilibrium of freshman year, the sense that perhaps one has stumbled into a completely other (and insane) world, to excellent and literal effect. What undergraduate doesn’t think her roommate is an alien?

    It recaptured entirely my delight when Alice, tired of carrying the crying baby through a wood in Wonderland, finds that the baby has turned into a pig. No well-brought-up girl would ever put a baby down in the woods and walk away. A pig, however, is meant to live in the woods and search for truffles. Down it goes. I love a fictional world that employs a wish-fulfullment engine.

    1. Ah, but I quickly came to the conclusion that if life at American universities was that crazy that perhaps explains why America produces so many crazy adults. Roommates, really?

      I know what you mean about the pig, but I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t lived in the US will.

      1. The book is very US-centric, and that may well limit it’s appeal outside the US.

        I’ll refrain from estimations of the amount of crazy in the US university system. The freshman experience is liminal in a way that many find destabilizing. To some extent, that’s an intentional part of the process of education. The book gets that spot on. Theoretically, restabilization occurs. (Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin captures both parts of the process, with the fantastic popping up all over campus instead of the alien, and with her protagonist coming to grips, quite literally, with a larger world view.)

        Not everyone manages the reintegration, however. Roommates, yes. Unless you know someone who’s attending your university, which here we often don’t unless we go to school near our parents’ residence, then you’re assigned a roommate whom you’ve never met and likely have nothing in common with. The results can be anything from delightful to alarming. The roommate I was assigned signally failed to reintegrate.

  2. Cheryl, thanks for your intriguing and entertaining review of my book. For readers outside America, a couple points may be of interest.

    The “Unity” party represents traditional Republicans as well as Democrats. That is why Theodore Roosevelt is channeled at length. It’s scary, but Republicans thirty years ago were more “progressive” than Democrats today. Today, traditional Republicans are nearly extinct–and I miss them. They helped build up research at NSF and NIH.

    The Muslim characters represent a future where Islam is a normal, everyday feature of the cultural landscape. By comparison, my treatment of evangelical Christianity is much tougher. The three Muslim characters–the French student, the Iranian IT director, and the Swedish doctor–all play positive roles in the plot.

    Alas, I wish this book were as much an exaggeration as it seems. The past two years of politics–and news of the polar methane bubbles–came out after sent the manuscript to Tor. The book is, if anything, optimistic about both politics and climate change.

    Have a good New Year!

    1. Hi Joan,

      Many thanks for dropping by. I had a suspicion that Unity was supposed to be a merger of the Democrats and traditional Republicans, but I wasn’t certain so I left it out of the review. Also, of course, everything that those of us outside the US see of the Republicans these days is the crazy. It is sometimes hard to remember that there was anything else.

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