When I first arrived at the liberal arts college where I'd spend four years of my life, I saw redbrick dorms washed in the golden evening light of Pennsylvania autumn, and super-nourished young Americans practicing football in uniforms that made them look genetically engineered for oversized shoulders. Marveling at these alien sights, I felt like I'd just been delivered by spacepod (my uncle's car) to the surface of a new planet. I felt scared and isolated, and terribly excited for what was to come.
It's this unique feeling of dislocation and transition that Joan Slonczewski captures in her novel The Highest Frontier, by placing her young protagonist Jenny Ramos Kennedy (youngest heir to the political dynasty) in a liberal arts college that is actually in space, in its own self-contained little world—a cylindrical orbital spacehab called Frontera. Fortunately, Slonczewski doesn't take the easy route of having the novel just be about a rich white girl overcoming the difficulties of adjusting to a privileged college life (in space). No, Jenny's caught in the middle of a political family that could change the course of the upcoming US presidential election Earthside, which in turn could affect they way the political establishment on Earth responds to its environmental crisis and the "terror threat" of an invading alien ecosystem of cyanide-emitting, adaptable extra-terrestrial "ultraphytes."
Then there are difficult classes, strange professors, a bizarre roommate, Slanball (yes, like Quidditch), young love, predatory douchebags ("bros," same as they ever were), a collapsing spacehab infrastructure and much more to deal with. The stakes are unusually high for a college freshman. Because of this, The Highest Frontier becomes a narrative that takes the experience of college and amplifies it, transforming a campus into a place where young minds have to use their privileged position to try and figure out how to save the world. Literally.
As Dean Dylan Chase—who also gets a narrative viewpoint that runs parallel to Jenny's—says to the freshman class of Frontera College in his orientation speech:
College is where each of you will face the world's frontiers with your own . . . And if there is any one subject you fear the most, like the dire wolves our first Americans found by the Ohio River—take a course in that subject . . . Take on your fears, and your dreams will become real. Face your fears at Frontera. (p. 41)
It's a deliberately clichéd speech, and it makes clear the author's intent when it comes to using Frontera College (and Jenny herself, with her own personal "frontiers," such as public mutism—fear of public speaking—and grief over the death of her brother Jordi) as a metaphor for our current human condition. Slonczewski takes that thrilling feeling of terrifying transition that accompanies being on the threshold of new knowledge, and has it stand in for where we as humans, as Earthlings, are at this point in time. Jenny and Dylan have the weight of the world on their shoulders, but she wants these characters to demonstrate the best in us, to show that we have to grapple with what's happening to our world instead of opting for denial.
That denial is aptly represented by the fundamentalist Christian Centrists (who are now the dominant socio-political force in the US), who have pretty much given up the ghost on their home planet (to them, the center of the universe) and its critically deteriorating environment in favor of moving into spacehabs, like Noah did with his ark way back during that previous God-willed environmental crisis involving rising sea levels. Only this time they're moving up in the universe, closer to the celestial Firmament. Of course, spacehabs are only accessible to the proverbial "one percent." Frontera is the only spacehab left that isn’t under Centrist control, and therefore a perfect arena for Slonczewski to stage a battle of ideologies—it becomes a Swiftian construct like Laputa. Like that other city in the sky, Frontera is filled with both human genius and folly, and in this, they're both representative of Earth. Their literary purpose is to provide a speculative idea of which will win out in a contained, supposedly ideal version of Earth populated with the cream of its crop—human genius or folly. Frontera College is thus a fictional Petri-dish, a social experiment for which the control is Earth itself. What can this mixed bag of personalities really do for the world as crisis looms? Is escaping to a spacehab the best way to replicate a foregone, prelapsarian Earth?
With global warming, environmental crises, the rise of religious fundamentalism, worldwide political and economic turmoil, and scientific and technological leaps all ripped straight from the zeitgeist, this novel couldn’t be more topical. It’s calculated, for sure, but effective. In fact, Slonczewski's considerable thematic ambitions exceed the bounds of the novel, sometimes leaving her characters and my emotional investment in their travails struggling to catch up. What comes through, though, is her dedication to the scientific method, and her faith in it (as well as her reconciliation of that faith to a more religious one). Understanding something is more productive than shutting it out or fighting it—as evident in how the ultraphytes are handled in the novel; not evil invaders, but a new organism that we need to learn more about so that we can co-exist without wiping each other out.
As for the results of Slonczewski's Laputan experiment, I won't give the details away, but suffice to say she's a little less scathing and more optimistic than Swift. Our younger generations are also our potential saviors, she indicates, if nurtured properly. Cloistering them into a flimsy utopia for the privileged while the world outside crumbles is not exactly the best way to do that. Most importantly, adults need to provide an example; hence the insight into the Dean's own struggles to provide his students with the best possible environment for learning. It's an interesting view of someone with the best intentions struggling to do good within the limiting shackles of the very socio-economic systems that keep bread on his table.
The big ideas hide some significant shortcomings. 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).
Certain plot threads also get lost or weakened in the tangle. Jenny's struggle to be a team-player in the zero-g sport of Slanball just didn’t interest me—it felt too familiar, and unnecessary with everything else going on. Similarly, her love interest Tom never becomes too interesting, aside from a few studied details (he's a great cook and runs a private restaurant on campus, and is natural-born and therefore genetically lowbrow), and their relationship is so sedate it becomes uncomfortable to watch them tentatively tiptoe around each other for half the book. There's little on-page chemistry between them, as it were, and the whole sub-plot feels perfunctory. In regards to underwhelming narrative threads, perhaps worst of all is an incident of attempted rape, which seems to have little lasting significance for either the plot or the characters, making it feel shoehorned in as another topical, dramatic element.
The vaulting ambition that causes the novel to stumble in some areas redeems it as a work of science fiction, as the ideas about science, religion, and politics (and the intersection thereof) Slonczewski grapples with remain ceaselessly fascinating. It's interesting to see her reconciliation of religion and science, since she is both a practicing Quaker and a scientist (she has a PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, which shows in her attention to convincing scientific detail). The novel espouses an open-minded, level-headed, and curious view of the universe that even an irreligious reader like me can empathize with. As Frontera's Roman-Anglican Chaplain, Father Clare (also the Dean's spouse) says to Jenny—the young student scientist—at a key moment: "We preserve the word of God by scribbling prayers over something infinitely more valuable. It's up to you to find the original" (p. 285). A difficult mandate to live up to, but one that might just sum up humanity's endless pursuit for new knowledge. The Highest Frontier is worth reading because it respects that pursuit over all else. It didn't move me in the way my favorite books do, nor did its characters make an indelible impression on me. But it's a smart, humanistic novel despite its flaws; one that I would just as willingly recommend to a teenager as an adult.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, New Scientist CultureLab, Apex Magazine, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or his Flickr page.