As promised, some thoughts on Joan Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier as a complete work. What strikes me about it is how close it comes to being a novel that I would dislike intensely. It takes place exclusively within an enclave of the elite; the positive parts of the ending are brought about by the actions of the elite; and its protagonist is the sort of Heinleinian omnicompetent that usually exhausts me by the end of chapter one. Jenny Ramos Kennedy is scion to two political dynasties (three presidents and four senators in her family tree, apparently, and some of the best and most effective presidents the USA has seen), a straight-triple-A student, heading off to the Harvard-in-the-sky that is Frontera, where she's also a star slanball player (sort of a psychic Quidditch, so it demonstrate a real strength of mind), volunteers as a paramedic, and saves the US election, if not the world, by the end of her first term. Jenny is well-balanced, approachable individual, but against all that it's impressive that I liked the novel at all, never mind that it's one of my favourites of the year.
There is no doubt some sentimentality in my judgement. I recognised Jenny's experience, diving into university and barely coming up for air. The rush of new people, the crowding in of new ideas, and in my case (I went to Oxford), a familiar sense of being told you're at the top of something, part of an elite. Even more in my case, a familiar sense of excitement in the type of intellectual exploration going on, at the chance to unpick how organisms work (I read biochemistry, Jenny studies life sciences). I can't honestly judge how well this side of the novel will work for other readers. I think that it should still be effective, the contrast between the methodical pacing through Jenny's daily life and the density and novelty of her environment and experiences capturing how intensely compressed university life can seem; but it may not.
So what else can I say about the novel? I can say that it's also a sort of science fiction that I'm very sympathetic to, a detailed extrapolation of the near-ish future. In my first reaction I compared it to Vinge's Rainbows End, but with a fundamentally mechanistic biology as the central technology, and I think that's still a useful reference point, although I'd say that Slonczewski's is far the more sophisticated and satisfying novel. The geopolitics of The Highest Frontier remain Western, and American specifically -- that's the main source of the student body (although it's satisfyingly diverse in terms of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth), and we're told that America remains a world leader, that the outcome of the upcoming presidential election is important for the fate of the world and not just the fate of the nation. Arguably a weakness of the novel is that for all its invented technology, and for all its projected social change, it feels a little familiar, in the structure of its political debates if not their specifics. I'm a fascinated observer of American politics (and consumer of American political fairy-tales like The West Wing), so this only bothered me occasionally; but it's true there are moments that feel like a commentary on our present, in a way that is at odds with the extrapolative tone of the bulk of the book.
Ultimately, however, if I was trying to persuade someone to read The Highest Frontier, the politics would be the peg on which I would hang my argument. The bioscience speculation is nifty -- although one particular plot twist, involving the extraterrestrial ultraphytes, is rather too easy to see coming -- but it's the fundamental seriousness with which Slonczewski makes a case for political engagement that gives the book stature in my mind. How many novels have you read recently that make a drama out of voter registration? I can forgive quite a few quasi-satiric sillinesses for an ultimate wonkish embrace of the potential of democracy. The Highest Frontier doesn't indulge ethical simplicity; one particular aspect of the conclusion is as morally problematic as it is immediately satisfying. But the conclusion as a whole is emphatic in its endorsement of community -- it insists that cooperation is necessary, is the greatest expression of human potential -- in a way that serves as a rebuke to individualism, even if you do happen to be omnicompetent.
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