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The Highest Frontier

October 10, 2011

I started reading Joan Slonczewski’s novel The Highest Frontier a couple of years ago, when she asked for my opinion of an early manuscript version. I love knowing a writer who wants reader reactions, and who actually incorporates them into the finished novel!

The day the novel came out, September 13, was the day I found out my father was in the hospital. So altogether, I have to say that the final version of this novel has the dubious distinction of being the book it’s taken me the longest to read of any I’ve enjoyed in my adult life.

It also has the distinction of being very close to what I’ve been experiencing during Eleanor’s first semester of college in Iowa.  We think it’s a safe place to leave her, like the parents of Jenny Ramos Kennedy think the spacehab Frontera is a safe place to leave their daughter, a child chosen so deliberately that she was not “born of random sperm and egg.”

Of course, teaching young adults to think is not a safe enterprise, and Jenny’s experience during her first year at Frontera College is full of adventure, most notably her inability to separate her private life from the political aspirations of her family, and her refusal to close her eyes to the possible wisdom of the course taken by what the rest of the world sees as “alien invaders.”

The administration of the college makes much of its status as “the last frontier,” with its air of “the same composition breathed by our Founding Fathers” and “free of mosquitoes and yellow plague, untouched by drought or flood.”  But since this is a novel, not all of those guarantees are going to turn out to be entirely true.

The part of the novel I remembered most vividly from my first reading of the manuscript is the printers. They print out clothes and furniture, food and even houses. Since I first read this in fiction, there have been an increasing number of news stories and demonstration videos about 3D printing.

The other thing I remembered vividly is the “toyworld.”  More complicated and pervasive than the modern internet, and less decadent than M.T. Anderson’s Feed, the virtual world of this novel is intricately described and eminently plausible.  I particularly enjoy the way the “windows” for Jenny’s boyfriend and the college president’s spouse disappear from their “toybox” when the significant other is displeased, as if the process is something like “unfriending” that person on Facebook.

There’s some good academic satire in this novel.  Jenny is “stunned,” for instance, when she gets an “A” on a project because “In high school, she’d never earned less than A triple plus.”  The descriptions of the appearance of these elite college students also rings true:  “all Monroe lips and Newman chins, with gold rings through their perfect noses.” In this world of the future, the gold rings mean they have been genetically engineered. They are made to resemble Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman, and to live in perfect health far longer than the humans of today. Part of this is due to HIV, or, as they call it, Human Improvement Virus.

The way Jenny “plays” her taxes, gambling, is amusing all the way through the novel, until finally, on page 360, the following conversation explains how these people of the future feel about this method:

“What was there before taxplaying, anyhow? How did the government run?”

“They just took your money. Like tithing.”

“Well, that’s no good. At least at roulette, you got a chance.”

A few of the details about the college, a gestalt of small, elite liberal arts colleges, are quite obviously drawn from Kenyon, like that “along Buckeye Trail the gravel crunched beneath her feet. Her soles picked up so many pebbles, she had to print new shoes every night.”

At a college bookstore event on September 13, Joan revealed that she has plans to write about Jenny’s next three years at Frontera College. I doubt they’ll coincide with my experience quite the way this one did, during Eleanor’s first year away at college, but I have little doubt that they’ll be equally as amusing and inventive.  I’m not just saying that because Joan is a friend of mine–but certainly one of the reasons she’s my friend is that I always love hearing what’s going to come next out of her imagination.

If you have any requests about what you’d like to see in a space college of the future, let her know (her website is listed at the end of the novel).  (Update: now she’s started a blog called Ultaphyte.)  She likes to “write interactively” with her readers.  It’s almost like having Holden Caulfield’s kind of author you can call up on the telephone whenever you like, except that Holden didn’t imagine the immediacy of today’s internet.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 6:24 pm

    The Highest Frontier needs to go on my wish list – I think I’d enjoy it. (I was just talking about 3-D printing with my son last week…) Thanks for the review, Jeanne!

  2. October 11, 2011 8:16 am

    3-D printing has obvious appeal for the parents of a first-year college student. Except…one of the things we took to ours on parents’ weekend was…a printer!

  3. October 11, 2011 8:59 am

    A 3-D printer, natch!

    • October 11, 2011 9:09 am

      I wish! She’s finding out that not all colleges are as well-run in terms of computers, connectivity, printing…all the things Ron does so well at Kenyon. She’s had a good time stomping around declaring “My Father Shall Hear of This!” in her best villain voice, though.


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