The Highest Frontier is a sci-fi novel by Joan Slonczewski.
Jenny, still mourning the loss of her twin brother who died in an accident, is entering her first year of college at Frontera. Frontera is the first college built in orbit, away from the environmentally wrecked Earth and the ultraphyte alien species, a still mysterious plant-like creature that has killed many with its cyanide defense system, which has invaded almost every area of the world.
She just wants to feel safe and live a semi normal life. She has interesting, if odd, professors and begins to become quite involved in her classes. But she soon realizes that though Frontera is far away from familiar problems, it also presents new ones. New dangers that may place her already fragile mind in a state of near constant nervousness... As well as place her in the midst of a political mess...
The Highest Frontier presents us with a futuristic world that is fascinating and not all that pleasant. The world seems ravaged. Political corruption and moral values are still an issue, and technology has increased to the point where hardly anyone ever does anything physically anymore - for example, people control the ball in sports with their minds, while standing on the sidelines. Slonczewski makes this future feel believable and not as strange as you'd think. This is because she still allows normal human interaction, grief, and fears to be part of her world. She keeps her story grounded. Though I appreciated this, I also felt that perhaps it was more grounded than it needed to be.
There was a lot I liked about The Highest Frontier. Jenny's character is sympathetic, and watching her fight with her "mental", a sort of therapeutical block and watch on her mind, as she tried desperately to visit her deceased brother in a virtual world of memories was quite something. And though this future world was a bit confusing, it was also thought-provoking, interesting and disturbing as it delved into genetic modifications. Almost everyone has bits of Marilyn Monroe or Paul Newman mixed in with their specifically chosen DNA, among the choice of the parents to decide if their child would be heterosexual or homosexual. Politics and religion have evolved into something familiar but altogether different. All of this is intriguing in its pure weirdness, to be sure.
However, the reason why I didn't absolutely love The Highest Frontier was that the plot didn't hold me. Like I said earlier, its almost like the novel was too grounded for me. Following a normal freshman girl to college, dealing with normal issues and normal emotions among a world that is abnormal to us could work... but I kept finding myself wishing for a slightly more thrilling plot. After the first one hundred pages of awe at Slonczewski's excellent imagination and intricate detail, I felt like the story really slowed down - and besides being occasionally effectively disturbed by the "advancements" made to technology, I wasn't all that involved or invested.
The psychological complications that the revealed dangers of Frontera presented to Jenny and the ultraphyte mystery were probably the most interesting of the multiple layers of plot. And there was a nice twist (which I kind of saw coming, but not all the way) near the end. I think a lot of people that like contemporary fiction with a crazy different, science fiction setting will absolutely love this. Clearly they already have! The reviews of The Highest Frontier have been great.
It's just that for me, personally, I didn't have enough reason to keep from skimming the last portion of the novel. The Highest Frontier is a smart, creative novel but lacks, for me anyway, entertainment value. But you know what I always say! Don't take my word for it - read it yourself!