Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Book Review: The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski

Pros: interesting protagonist; fascinating world-building; thought provoking concepts

Cons: fair amount of repetition, especially at the beginning; several unexplained concepts and items, including one important to the plot

Jennifer Ramos Kennedy’s culture source was her great-grandmother, President Rosa Schwartz.  A few months after a family tragedy she’s setting out for Frontera, a university on an orbiting space station.  She chose it both because a family friend runs the school but also because it’s free of many of the things plaguing Earth: mosquitos carrying disease, risk of flood and methane quakes, the expanding Death Belt, and the need for DIRG bodyguards.  But university life isn’t quite what she expected: her teachers are all a little crazy, her roommate is weird and has an unhealthy affiliation for ultraphytes, the alien plants that crave salt and spread from their landing site in Utah to be a scourge on the world, her slanball coach wants her well rested, a hard thing when she’s volunteering for the understaffed EMS, and there’s so much reading and work to do for her classes.  

Meanwhile, she’s knee deep in helping the Unity party win the next Presidential election.  Jenny doesn’t understand how the Centrist Firmament belief is so strong when people live in space!  But things on Earth have reached the point that if change doesn’t come soon, it’ll be too late for the planet.  And yet the Centrists want to expand the solar array that’s expanding the Death Belt, intending for people to leave earth in the coming Rapture, relocating to other space stations.  Stations that couldn’t possibly hold even a portion of the people on Earth.

And it turns out that Frontera isn’t as free of Earthly disasters as she was led to believe.

I have a confession to make.  The plot synopsis for this book did not interest me.  At all.  I started reading it in the hope that 30 to 50 pages in I’d be bored and free to put it in my ‘discard’ pile.  But the more I read the more the world fascinated me.  There’s very little exposition.  You’re thrown into the novel with limited explanations of what things are and how the world has changed from what we currently know.  As Jenny reaches college and her classes start the novel became so interesting that I had to keep reading, just to learn more about the world.  And while it’s an entirely character driven novel, my interest never waned.  There are plot points that pull the story into a thought provoking conclusion, but for the most part the book follows Jenny through her days, questioning the world and the politics that run it.

As a scion of a political family, Jenny knows politics, making her an excellent character to follow.  Through her mother and conjoined twin aunts, she’s connected to the upcoming Presidential election; she helps when one of her professor’s runs for mayor; sees the struggle with personnel and supplies as she volunteers for EMS, and more.  She also takes two politics courses, one on Teddy Roosevelt and the other on Aristotle and democracy, the lectures for which come up often in the text.  The book’s ending questions how politics is done, and if it’s possible to fix a broken system. 

The second point of view character, Dylan Chase, is President of the university, and through him we see the difficulties of managing his staff and securing sufficient financing.  We also see him dealing with student problems: alcoholism, printer disease hacks, assault, and addiction.  

The world-building is top notch: Spanish colloquialisms, tax playing at casinos, unique fashion trends, amyloid (sewage processed by hab shell microbes that’s used to ‘print’ everything from food to clothing to the shelters everyone lives in), the anthrax cables that transport ships between Frontera and Earth, Toynet, Kessler debris, I could go on.  The sport of slanball is pretty cool too.

The supporting cast is wide and varied, though it focuses on Jenny’s family, a few professors, close students (including the players of her slanball team) and some of Dylan’s contacts (for his POV scenes).  Jenny’s experiences at the school are also varied, from class work to parties to helping build houses for colonists.

The first few chapters contain a fair amount of repetition, especially with regards to Jenny’s family.  Which makes it all the more strange that other concepts and terms are left unexplained.  You figure out what DIRGs are pretty quick, but I don’t remember the acronym being explained.  Similarly, Jenny notices an object on one of her teacher’s desks that affects the plot.  She brings it up to another character, implying she knows the relevance of the object, but it’s not until the end of the book that as a reader I figured out what the object was and what it meant.

If you like a lot of character development and world-building in your science fiction, this is a highly entertaining, and sometimes thought provoking, read.  I’m glad I gave it 50 pages.

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