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Joan Slonczewski
The Highest Frontier
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-765-32956-1
Publication Date: 09-13-2011
446 Pages; $26.99
Date Reviewed: 09-28-2011

Index:  Science Fiction  General Fiction

One of the problems with genre fiction is pretty simple — Murphy's Law. When one sets out to write a science fiction, fantasy, horror or mystery novel, there are a lot of conventions and expectations. If a writer is experienced in the genre and lucky, there's a lot that can go right. But inversely, there's a lot that can go wrong, and it usually does. So when a novel comes along that can be, to a degree, accurately summarized as "college in space," one might be well-advised to temper one's expectations. At best.

Unless of course the name Joan Slonczewski is attached, and the novel is 'The Highest Frontier' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; September 13, 2011 ; $26.99), in which case you can actually and accurately invert your expectations. Slonczewski is the author of more than one classic, and her first novel in ten years is a best-case scenario in the science fiction genre. She gets the characters right, she gets the world right, she gets the science right, but most importantly she knows how to use all the moving parts to put together an engaging novel. 'The Highest Frontier' will exceed your highest expectations.

Jennifer Ramos Kennedy is yes, a distant relative of one of them, entering her freshman year at Frontera College, an orbital habitat where she'll be groomed for leadership. Jennifer's a lucky girl leading a privileged life. But even in space she can't avoid the problems brewing down below. Slonczewski creates an incredibly complicated future, much of which is implied rather than directly seen. Earth is going to hell in a hand basket with the help of humans and a biological alien invasion, cunningly crafted by the author. In order to help, Jennifer is going to have to get through college. Slonzewski is smart in setting up her character as a college freshman. She uses that familiar, first-day-in-school, immersion-in-a-new-world experience to immerse her readers in the future she's created.

While Jennifer is our primary perspective, some portions of the novel are seen through the eyes of Dylan Chase, who runs Frontera. As he tries to jockey priorities of a society and culture that have yet to arrive, the author uses him to crank up the tension. His decisions impact Jennifer's life. The ripple effect of Chase's decisions and perspectives on Jennifer's life gives the novel a more breathtaking, wide-screen feel.

Slonczewski builds her world on two levels, with superb prose and a pessimistic outlook. There's a balance to be struck in science fiction that is not often discussed. Writers who set their work in the future need to acknowledge the changes in language, while making sure the book is readable by those in the present. It's a knack that requires a delicate mix of artistry, creativity, social awareness, scientific knowledge and good luck. Slonczewski has it in spades. 'The Highest Frontier' is eminently readable, and every word, every sentence draws the reader into the entertainingly complicated future envisioned by the author.

Slonczewski's vision is not a future that readers will hope for. Fortunately, we can read her novel in the present, and look around, seeing the same seeds that she has brought to fruition in prose. The real power of a great science fiction novel is that readers can experience art that need not be prophetic. Sometimes thought-provoking entertainment is more than enough. We can only hope our future includes sequels to this novel. It's certainly a much better prospect than an ultracyte invasion.

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