The Highest Frontier
Good Read Blurb
“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.” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11832546-the-highest-frontier)
Jennifer, our main character, is an insecure being who believes that her twin was the brilliant one. She has always felt inferior to him. (In this we gain a brilliant exploration of the sibling relationship.) On top of this, Jennifer Kennedy is grieving for her lost twin and has been self harming. Beside the psychological impact of her loss, her bereavement puts her at a disadvantage in a world where twinal relationships are the norm. In this world, mirroring the world presented to us in Greg egans’s, a clockwok rocket– children seem to come in pairs (male and Female). The two children seem linked to each other. Single women/girls who, for one reason or another, have lost their twin are viewed with suspicion and seem to be at the mercy of sexual predators. We get hints of this at the very start of the novel. Jennifer’s father doesn’t want his daughter to go to college. He does not want her to go so far. He keeps asking- “can’t you study from home”. At first, the reader is forced to conclude that it is his father’s natural, protective instincts, together with an autistic person’s fear of change, that causes his reaction. But, his fears for his daughter are based on a knowledge of how his world treats single, untwined, individual’s. His fears are justified when Jennifer is assaulted and raped by a fellow student. This rape is written very well. We are in Jennifer’s head during that stage of the novel and experience only what she experiences. Therefore, since she is unconscious during the assault, we don’t get a graphic/voyeuristic description of the attack. Instead, the author forces us to pay attention to the after effects of the assault, focusing on the pain and anger of the characters following the attack.
Jennifer is socially awkward and is intimidated by her role in a political (Kennedy like) family. She wishes to escape the pressurized bubble of her home. Therefore, she chooses to attend a school that is located on a space station/bio-sphere. This is the story of her finding her confidence, finding both; her way out of her twin’s shadow, and a role within her world. She must drop her fear of publicity and, making a few mistakes along the way, join the bitter political dogfight that has developed within the culture of her society.
This world has a lot of issues to deal with; internally, global warming and the flooding/diseases that come with that phenomenon, and externally an alien that is (unknowingly) killing the human population. The alien is a plant like being whose seemingly innocent act of breathing poisons the natives. When stressed, these aliens breathe out carbon monoxide. They’re a constant presence and, somewhat dictate the politics of Jennifer’s World. But, I feel that this thread of the story was slightly redundant. I feel that it has been placed, uncomfortably, on top of another more fully formed story.
This is a world of polarized politics. The dominant political parties of Jennifer’s world are fighting over the issues; of science vs religion, and their role within the wider universe. One party wishes to hunker down, ignore the rest of the universe, destroy the school, and ignore any scientific advances taking place at the school (and other laboratories). While, the other party, led by her family, wish to go further with the scientific exploration and universal expansion already being undertaken by institutions – such as Jennifer’s school. The two political parties that dominate this world may be seen to mirror the two main parties that dominate the American political scene. The use of the name Kennedy for the main family reinforces this view of the story.
There are several pivotal, dominant characters within this world. Two of the most powerful members of the school community are; the headmaster and the rector. These two individuals are sexual partners. They have a really loving, mature, relationship. They are well rounded human beings who have hopes and fears. I particularly loved the way how the rector explores his faith and admits his doubts. These two characters are male. This fact is just accepted within the book. Their sexuality never becomes an issue of discussion. It is simply taken for granted that these two characters have a very loving, sexual, relationship.
Some of the elements of this story really worked for me. I found the exploration of religion, politics and sexuality wonderfully refreshing and exciting. I also loved the way in which QUILTBAG issues are dealt with within this book. QUILTBAG relationships being taken for the norm. However, I am not sure that we need an external threat. It just seems to get in the way of the story. The world has enough ideas and problems to explore. It doesn’t need the external threat. However, I found the alien fascinating, and thought that the thread would have made a great short story. Despite, this reservation, I highly recommend this work.