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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.

Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
11 comments on “Boxing Day Reading”

So worth pushing through, you think? I've put it down and picked it up again several times, partially because I don't find the scenario any more appealing than you seem to, but mostly because of the clunky writing and graceless exposition of the worldbuilding. I think the thing that stopped me the last time was the second time in ten pages (once she's gotten to the college) when someone tells the lead character something that seemed copied from an infodump a few pages before.

It's tricky. I formed a strong emotional connection to the novel quite quickly, of the sort that makes you forgive a certain amount of stylistic infelicity -- when I reach for words to describe the writing style in The Highest Frontier I end up with things like "methodical", except I sort of mean it as praise, because I felt sympatico with the book's goals.
I've seen the criticism that Slonczewski repeats information elsewhere; I've also seen other smart readers saying they could have done with a little more exposition, because there's so much worldbuilding that keeping track of it was a challenge. I have to say, unhelpfully, that I seem to have fallen into the sweet spot between those positions.

This book is marketed to an adult audience, yes? After reading Evan's comment and noticing that the local library has just got this in, I took a look at the first pages via Amazon's "look inside" widget. The writing on at least those initial pages has the dreadful style I associate with bad middle grade novels, where every concept is explained right after it is introduced. Jenny seems to think about the whole history, or set of possible uses, of anything or anyone she sets eyes upon, right from the book's opening paragraph. For me this is not a matter of too much or not enough exposition, but of exposition that flows naturally from the character's viewpoint versus exposition that is constantly fighting the narrative construction.

Hmm, I'm not sure I can agree with all of that. Here's the opening:

The space lift rose from the Pacific, climbing the cords of anthrax bacteria. Anthrax would have blackened the blood, before the bacteria were tamed to lift freight into orbit. Now anthrax brought tourists up to spacehab Frontera, ready to hit the off-world slots. And it brought students to Frontera College, safe about their disaster-challenged planet.

Frontera College was tomorrow's destination for Jennifer Ramos Kennedy. The day before lift-off, Jenny was trimming her orchids in the greenouse atop her home ...

You can certainly argue that that first paragraph is over-explanatory, but I don't think it conflicts with Jenny's viewpoint, because I don't think we're in Jenny's viewpoint at that point. The second paragraph zooms in, but even then I'd say it's a loose third person, not so close that I'd read every observation as reflecting Jenny's thoughts. That's actually one of the things that reminded me of Rainbows End, a documentary, observational style.
As for audience and marketing, I don't know. Cheryl Morgan calls it "a book written by an adult in the hope that teenagers will read it and learn something from it." I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but I can't completely dismiss it either.
And while I'm here, I feel obliged to note, with reference to my comment that "one particular plot twist ... is rather too easy to see coming", Slonczewski says:

Some reviewers mention the “surprise” that isn’t–[spoiler]. It isn’t supposed to be a surprise. The reader should wonder, “Why doesn’t the college get this?” There’s a phenomenon in academia that sometimes a “student” gets by for a long while before they turn out not to be what they seem, like the cases at Stanford and Harvard. More often–and unsettling–a student has a serious hidden problem, like the pyromaniac admitted at a college full of ancient wooden dorms. And every semester, a few students develop “issues” that everyone knew about, except the long-suffering administrator to whom falls the task of getting us through the year.

I'm not sure this entirely works, because I didn't really get the sense that Jenny got it, whereas the one person who did get it is a faculty member. But I'd bear it in mind if I was re-reading the book.

Just noticed this blurb on the back, from Gregory Benford:

This hip, smart tip of the hat to Heinlein's young adult novels hits all the right notes. It's got a plausible near future, optimism, and savvy characters who move into action swiftly.

I think we can say that it's being marketed to readers nostalgic for Heinlein juveniles, even if not to actual YAs today.
(Also: "hip"?)

The second sentence of the first paragraph in particular bothered me--the combination of "why would Jenny care what anthrax used to do?" in much the same way that I don't review the history of asphalt when I see a car driving down the street, and "who does the author think is reading the book that they don't know what anthrax is?" If we're in Jenny's viewpoint, then the first is a problem; if we're not, then the second is a problem. Nevermind a detail like "off-world" is also unnecessary, because it's already been established that Frontera is in "orbit," via a "space lift." "Off-world" is what those words mean.
Then in the third paragraph we're given the history of the ultraphytes because Jenny sees one. Then in the fourth paragraph, the narrator explains how the "toybox" works because Jenny is using it. Then in the eighth paragraph, the narrator recaps Jenny's old science project. Then in the ninth paragraph, Jenny thinks "If only Jordi were here," which is used as an excuse to give us a history of someone other than Jordi. Then shortly thereafter is a sentence or two of needless exposition about brainstream texting when Jenny uses that technology, followed by Jenny's father asking her, apparently in all seriousness, a day before she's scheduled to leave for an orbital college to which she's applied and been accepted, why she wants to leave home....
If you like this sort of storytelling, or can look past it, more power to you. I find it to be on the far side of elegant, and ruinous to the reading experience.

I'd argue that "off-world" in the first paragraph is necessary, because it establishes that there are on-world slots with which the off-world slots can be contrasted. "ready to hit the slots" suggests that the only slots are in space.
(There's a more egregious use of "off-world" -- a repeat, in fact -- in the third paragraph, certainly.)
I think what your run-down misses is that there's also a steady progression of events in those paragraphs. The second paragraph sets the scene of the flashback; in the third paragraph a squirrel approaches the ultraphyte; in the fourth paragraph Jenny is actively using the Toybox; the fifth, sixth and seventh are dialogue; in the eighth paragraph Jenny's science project is relevant because it illustrates changing attitudes to ultraphytes; etc. It's hardly a thriller, but it's definitely moving forward. Similarly, there are plenty of things not explained: why the "off-world slots" merit a mention; the abundance of kudzu in NY state compared to the present; what "slanball" is or might be; everything implied by "the Cuban Kennedys"; and so on. Now, most of these things are also explained later in the novel. But there is a lot being packed in. I agree it's not elegant, but I do find it effective.
That said, Indrapramit Das is with you on this one:

At first, I felt distanced from everything going on in the novel, because Slonczewski spends too much time obsessively detailing every aspect of her future culture and setting. It gets cloying, much like being at an undergrad orientation if you’re not an undergrad. I got exasperated when reminded for the umpteenth time that buildings, food, and clothes up there are made of 3D-printed "amyloid," or that the fashion-savvy students at Frontera have a penchant for "trailing laces" and butt-exposing "moonholes" on their pants. I'm a fan of rich worldbuilding, and the novel's a tremendous showcase for just that, but without involving characters and situations to ground me in the world, it's all for naught. The characters and plot take a while to bloom, and until they do, the narrative feels like too much of a campus tour during undergrad orientation, showing off Frontera and its state-of-the-art facilities (which is obviously not the point).

(I'm not sure the point about amyloid is fair -- it's just a building material, like saying that something is made of brick and wood, I think it only sticks out because it's unusual, not because it's overused.)

I think mostly I was having a grump over my sense that too many recent genre books were being hailed based on their nifty and/or topical ideas, with no mention of the writing quality at all. And when I gave the books a try, I was being let down by the writing. (Cf. my comments on Greg Egan that you quoted elsewhere.)

Ah, the perennial problem...

TS Miller

As a Kenyon College alum and former student of Slonczewski's, I can assure you that Frontera isn't "Harvard-in-the-sky" but very much "Kenyon-in-the-sky," down to the demographics of the neighboring village, some of the personalities among the professoriate, and even the notorious voting delays -- which during the 2004 presidential election put the college in the national news. Thus, I agree with you entirely that "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." I too found the honest attempt to extrapolate the details of a 2112 future at odds with the thinly-veiled satire of some rather specific events and circumstances of the early 2000s -- and, as someone who lived through many of those events at the same isolated liberal arts college as Slonczewski, I'm sure I noticed even more such references than the average reader.
(As far as I know, though, my alma mater has yet to introduce a population of miniature elephants to campus.)

Ha! That makes sense. And would probably make for a fun essay at some point ...
(As far as I know, though, my alma mater has yet to introduce a population of miniature elephants to campus.)

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