The Highest Frontier
by Joan Slonczewski
In October of Jennifer Ramos Kennedy's first year at Frontera College, the college chaplain says “by this time of year, students become convinced that all they've experienced has cosmic impact.” The descendant of two presidents, Jenny bears the weight of great expectations and also great tragedy: her beloved twin brother drowned in an accident. In The Highest Frontier, Joan Slonczewski's seventh science fiction novel, Jenny finds the strength to persevere without her brother and to deal with an interlocking set of circumstances leading up to a dramatic presidential debate that indeed has cosmic impact.
Slonczewski, a member of Kenyon's biology faculty since 1984, offers an intimate, detailed account of what life might be like in college a century from now, when college is located in a revolving hub thousands of miles above Earth's troubled surface. This is humanity's new frontier, a physical landscape that embodies the same hope that Jenny herself represents.
Freshman year is a totally immersive experience, and Slonczewski relishes the details. There are fresh delights on practically every page: slanball, the game of mind force; toynet, a “brainstream” successor to our Internet; Jenny having to print out Aristotle's Politics, instead of scrolling through the text in her toybox; a system of funding government in which citizens “play” their taxes at casinos. (One $50,000 wager at roulette covers Jenny's obligations for a quarter.) We hear that one of Jenny's friends attends “virtual University of Miami, in a toyworld that re-created the submerged city. The real Miamians had long since fled, most to Havana.” Slonczewski's world is built out of these witty, ironic extrapolations from where we are today.
Is The Highest Frontier a roman à clef? Slonczewski gives us plenty to chew on. The president's surname is Chase—but it's Dylan, not Philander. It's Buckeye Trail, not Middle Path, but still there's “gravel crunching beneath . . . shoes.” There are no frats at Frontera, but the college of the future has “motor clubs” that serve the purpose. (The Ferraris are especially troublesome.) It's Mount Gilead, not Mount Vernon, but the contrast between the liberal campus and conservative community is just as stark.
Dylan's own son says that outsiders view the elite institution as “a raft full of hedonistic rich kids,” but Jenny isn't the only rich kid who volunteers to build houses and go on runs with the local rescue squad. Insufficient facilities force college precinct voters to stand in line for hours before they can cast ballots. All this—and the biology professor who's involved in one mess or another—might seem very familiar to our Kenyon community.
Ultimately, though, the question of whether Frontera is Kenyon is immaterial, much less interesting than the lovely portrayal of the college itself. One hundred years from now, Frontera students are still examining DNA and RNA, and still discussing Aristotle and Plato. College presidents are welcoming freshmen to an institution that, however flawed, sees wisdom as the highest frontier and continues to believe that education is “the highest calling of the human race.” It's an optimistic call, and in Slonczewski's hands, it's irresistible.
—Jim Huang, Kenyon Bookstore manager