Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonszewski

The Highest Frontier
by Joan Slonczewski
Tor 2011

I hadn't heard of the author before, but the mention of Robert Heinlein's young adult novels in a quote on this book's cover caused me to pick it up.  An endorsement from George Zebrowski on the back got me excited.

But besides Heinlein another precursor of the book has to be Harry Potter.  It's about the first year at an unusual school (it's on a space colony orbiting the Earth) with students who have magical powers (though it is more in the line of near future technologies that have the appearance of magic) and there's even a quidditch-like game.

 In his book on Heinlein, H. Bruce Franklin quotes him as saying among the differences between his adult and juvenile books are that "the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don't mind big words..."

This novel's protagonist is female--Jenny Ramos Kennedy--and we don't call them boy's books anymore, but otherwise the quote pertains.  The first several chapters drop you into a strange new world that requires a lot of attention to navigate.  Instead of just one or two new features there are many.  They all make sense as extrapolations of current technologies, but they aren't explained--they are part of the action.

This provocative, often convincing future is the best thing about this novel. Apart from being the author of the acclaimed Elysium series, Joan Slonczewski is a professor of microbiology, so her knowledge of science (as well as university politics) inform the clarity and complexity of this fictional world.  But the science here is less the rocket science or engineering you would find in an Heinlein juvie, or the physics of Interstellar.  The emphasis is on the biological sciences (as well as mad advances in computer tech) including genetics but not only that.  Some of her most provocative inventions have to do with plants and microorganisms, including a novel new use for anthrax.  And a new kind of alien.

A lot of the story has to do with electoral politics, and the author has a lot of fun extrapolating from the recent past, particularly family dynasties.  She manages to slide in several slogans and quotes from campaigns and presidencies of the 1960s forward.  There's little sense of a utopia here but it's also not exactly part of the dystopian YA trend.  There's a certain realism about politics as currently practiced, and where that's leading.  Even though it's leavened with a gentle satire, it's kind of depressing if you think about it.  (Even though this book was published in 2011, I'll bet a lot of it was written during the Bush years.)

For me the book was interesting and entertaining in its parts, and Jenny is an appealing character, but I don't see J.K. Rowling threatened by the storytelling. Too many strands seem to waft away, too much happens without narrative tension and the big character surprise was visible from the beginning, with such obvious tells along the way that I felt like shaking these people.  But the payoff eventually was nice.

One of the challenges here was to create kids being kids as we know them, even though they are mostly genetically designed according to a few prototypes, like Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman, and social networks talk to you inside your head. Though I didn't find all the characters distinguishable or credible, there were enough to suggest that even in a culture that is at once more diverse and more conformist, there are still possibilities for soulful kids.

 The barriers to same sex relationships have fallen in this future, as they are falling now, but the sexual violence on campus that's become a bigger issue lately has more than survived.    

The author has said this might be the first of a Potter-like series (one per school year presumably) depending on readers' response.  Considering I bought the hardback at the dollar store, I'm not sure about the future of Jenny and Frontera College. (On the other hand, I don't understand the publishing business anymore, so maybe it means nothing.  Maybe it was a coup.) But whether or not there are sequels, the future that Joan Slonczewski imagined for The Highest Frontier will stay with me.

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