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Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier is a novel pushing the boundaries of science fiction ever outward, whilst at the same time grounding it in a real understanding of science and the possibilities available to us.  Set in 2112, we're introduced to a world which is not united, and where religious fundamentalism still exists; a world reminiscent of the modern political situation; a world without interstellar travel.  But it is also a world with spacehabs, connected to the Earth by chains of anthrax cultured to be non-infective but rather useful; a world with replicator-style machines; a world ravaged by global warming, and ultraphytes - alien rapidly-adapting RNA-based organisms.

A world that, in sum, is compelling written, brilliantly explored, slowly unpacked into darker and stranger detail, more horrifying implications coming to light slowly over the course of the novel, as we follow Jennifer Ramos Kennedy (a scion of multiple presidential clans) over her entry into Frontera, a college in the upper atmosphere.  Jenny is a fantastic character; shorn of her twin brother through a catastrophe, she is a damaged, wounded figure, intelligent and fierce with a strong mind of her own but at the same time depressed and hurt.  Her development over the course of the novel is powerful and wonderful, and - as someone who recently went through the first year of university - true to life, as her friends and foes bring her out of herself.  The cast as a whole is indeed phenomenal; Slonczewski's eye for the human detail of life is stunning and effective, and her sympathetic hand works really well.  Each character in the large cast has their own idiosyncrasies and their own style, with beliefs and ideas that follow from that, and Slonczewski keeps them all distinct, individual people in the cast, with lives and loves and motivations and problems all their own, not all revolving around or even necessarily involving Jenny.

The plot is not a singular, strict linear plot.  Rather, we have a number of different themes entwined, all of  them putting a lot of work into realising the world of 2112, but also developing our characters and giving an interesting set of perspectives on different aspects of the modern world.  Slonczewski puts all the  characters through their own trials - the election acting as a catalyst for much that happens in The Highest Frontier, and politics being the prism through which much is viewed.  The basic plot is simply Jenny's settling in to college, with her classes and her family obligations to the Unity party; whilst this might sound like a basic YA novel with little going for it, Slonczewski's sympathetic telling and packed life for Jenny work really well to make it an active, powerful storyline.  Added to this are Mary Dyer, Jenny's strange room-mate (an eventual plot-twist is relatively obvious to the reader early on, but dealt with fantastically by Slonczewski, especially with a misdirect or two), who Jenny is helping to shepherd through life; and the college politics seen through the eyes of "Uncle Dylan", Frontera's president (principal/vice-chancellor, for UK readers!).  Perhaps most central is the Life Sciences class, which involves all sorts of interesting ideas about genetics and semiochemicals; this ties into all the other plotlines, and The Highest Frontier ties most of the plotlines to each other through this window.

The Highest Frontier, and the world of 2112, are fantastic and fascinating; neither utopia nor dystopia, but a dark and wonderful place, Slonczewski has created an amazing new world, and with a brilliant cast of characters.  I can hardly recommend this enough, both as hard science fiction and as a good story.

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libris_leonis
Daniel Franklin

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