The Highest Frontier is a far future science fiction novel involving a young woman named Jenny Ramos-Kennedy. She is part of a rich and politically influential family in a world with astonishing technological and biological advances and an environment drastically affected by global warming. (The polar icecaps have melted to the point where Antarctica now has potentially arable land.) This is also a world undergoing an invasion by an extraterrestrial species referred to as “ultraphytes.” These creatures are an invasive species of epic proportions and what makes them especially dangerous is that they have an extremely lethal “stress” reaction.
The story follows Jenny through her first year at Frontera College, a school built in orbit. She has the usual college problems of school, romance, and an apparently unhinged roommate. Her life is further complicated by grief and depression over the death of her twin brother. (Jenny has attempted suicide and engages in self-harming actions. To combat this she has an artificial intelligence acting as a kind of “therapist.” Unfortunately, the AI’s idea of “therapeutic” seems to be threatening Jenny with being put back into inpatient treatment.)
While I usually like Joan Slonczewski’s writing I was a little disappointed with this particular novel, mostly because of the main character. Jenny is a little too privileged and naïve to be very sympathetic. I tend not to like privileged, naïve characters unless there is an arc involving self-discovery where the character slowly becomes more aware of the “real world” and as a result becomes more mature. Jenny does not really seem to do this. Instead, the personal growth moments are sort of sketched in at the very end. (This is just an impression, it is entirely possible I am missing something.)
A great deal of what made this book intriguing (and occasionally very disturbing) is the technology used. The internet has been replaced by the “toynet” which is a virtual reality/social media platform that people plug into directly, creating an artificial telepathy of sorts. (An unexpected “easter egg” in this book is a game called “slan ball,” an apparent shout out to A.E. van Vogt’s Slan.) There are some fascinating technological uses for diseases, a lot of really interesting biotech and a space habitat filled with miniature elephants, bear, and deer.
Despite my general dislike for the main character, I found the book to be very readable with some fascinating worldbuilding.