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The Highest Frontier    by Joan Slonczewski order for
Highest Frontier
by Joan Slonczewski
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I opened Joan Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier with great anticipation after reading the front cover quote by Gregory Benford that 'This hip, smart tip of the hat to Heinlein's young adult novels hits all the right notes.' And though I agree in many respects, Heinlein always put the story before the science in his SF, whereas here the science sometimes obscures the story.

Still it's a darn good read and the science is impressive! Slonczewski tells of the coming of age of Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, privileged daughter of a wealthy political family and granddaughter of two presidents. Jenny's father runs the North American branch of Toynet, a virtual reality, and her mother works at Wall Street. But Jenny has problems too. After the heroic death of her twin brother Jordi, she found relief in cutting herself. Now she lives with a mental (a virtual psychologist) monitoring her actions. She also has trouble speaking to people directly, an obstacle to her family's political ambitions for her.

Jenny is about to attend college ... in orbit. Frontera College is in a spacehab along with a tribal casino. It's 'safe above their disaster-challenged planet', where an incursion of off-world ultraphytes threatens what remains of the damaged ecosystem. They kill with cyanide emissions and the world is now engaged in a War on Ultra. At college, Jenny busies herself with her studies, the slanball team, and EMS volunteer work. She makes a new best friend of Anouk Chouiref, exiled from Earth as a compulsive hacker, and is attracted to 'genetically challenged' Amish Tom Yoder. But her omniprosthete ('total body replacement') housemate, Mary Dyer, is more than strange. Mary 'acts like an ultraphyte.'

Of course, there are crises to be surmounted, which Jenny does, overcoming her own problems in the process. And she begins to think for herself and to try to solve not only Frontera's problems but also those that plague the planet below - can Mary's wisdom plants do the trick? If you like your SF, chock full of eclectic characters and fascinating science futures, then you don't want to miss The Highest Frontier.

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