The Highest Frontier (The Frontera Cycle 1) by Joan Slonczewski [Book Review]

What If You Believe Your Roommate Is An Alien?

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. Hacks are frequently life-threatening and outbreaks of new tailor-made diseases are common. People don’t pay taxes any more they are Taxplayers and gamble at a casino instead and the surplus fund the government.

It will not matter in what country our readers are – we still have many interesting and important facts from the world of online gambling.

Some of the names of technologies and gadgets feel a bit juvenile like Toynet and calling bears for teddies. Teenagers of today would never use that kind of vocabulary but many things might change in a hundred years.

Jenny also does sports. She plays Slanball the game of mind force (See Slan a novel by A E Van Vogt about telepaths). It is a bit like that game in Harry Potter.

Joan is a microbiologist with teaching experience and that comes across in her writing. I particularly liked the way she used virtual worlds for teaching and anthrax for building the space elevator. It has been a pleasure to read this new-to-me author. Her last novel came out more than ten years ago and this is the first novel in the Frontera Cycle so I hope it doesn’t take another ten years to write the next one because I want to read it and read it soon. The story has a young adult feel to it but worked well for me at my age. It is also stand alone if that is what you prefer (Gambling Commission).

Joan told me that the Frontera Cycle will continue with Jenny. She visits Cuba, and discovers that ultraphytes have evolved to grow in the ocean–but what are they up to?  Meanwhile, back at Frontera for her sophomore year, the college faces an uncertain future because the casino is losing money–and proposes an alarming solution.

The Highest Frontier get my strong recommendation.

Book Information

The Highest Frontier (The Frontera Cycle 1) by Joan Slonczewski (Tor 2011) – review copy – Amazon US | UK

One of the most respected writers of hard SF, it has been more than ten years since Joan Slonczewski’s last novel. Now she returns with a spectacular tour de force of the college of the future, in orbit. Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, a girl from a rich and politically influential family (a distant relation descended from the famous Kennedy clan), whose twin brother has died in an accident and left her bereft, is about to enter her freshman year at Frontera College.

Frontera is an exciting school built with media money, and a bit from tribal casinos too, dedicated to educating the best and brightest of this future world. International Association of Gaming Regulators. We accompany Jenny as she proceeds through her early days at school, encountering surprises and wonders and some unpleasant problems. The Earth is altered by global warming, and an invasive alien species called ultraphytes threatens the surviving ecosystem. Jenny is being raised for great things, but while she’s in school she just wants to do her homework, go on a few dates, and get by. The world that Jenny is living in is one of the most fascinating and creative in contemporary SF, and the problems Jenny faces will involve every reader, young and old.