sff she-read #10: THE HIGHEST FRONTIER, by Joan Slonczewski
My Goodreads review more or less sums it up:
Full of ideas, some really cool, but the mix of Charlie Stross and Jane Smiley didn’t quite gel for me. I think she may have built the right world and found the wrong story to tell in it—in a world that’s plagued with so many really terrible problems, it just constantly rings odd to be focused on a girl from a well-heeled political family in her freshman year at a fancy liberal arts college (though at least it is in space). It’s a weird enough approach that I kind of want to recommend it, but the execution starts rough and doesn’t consistently improve.
It did win the 2012 Campbell award for best novel, though, so somebody’s mileage varied.
Of course, it’s possible I’m just sensitive because one of the running jokes is that Amherst once accidentally admitted a robot.
The one thing I’ll add is that I would try out Slonczewski’s earlier work on the strength of THE HIGHEST FRONTIER. I really like the way she applies her biological training to her speculation. I just think there’s an intrinsic, almost structural problem in building a world that’s full of really dire stuff and then looking at it through the eyes of a person who’s as protected from that stuff as it’s possible to be. (For one thing, it sure blunts the stakes of the presidential campaign that runs throughout the book; the fate of the world is supposedly in the balance—and it’s not implausible, but the main character’s family is so powerful that it’s hard to imagine her coming to much harm even if billions die.)
I could be wrong about this. I suppose I’m implying that a college novel kind of has to be a novel of manners or some kind of personal journey, and I don’t exactly want to be that restrictive. But I do, a little. I went to one of these colleges. I learned a few things and made some lifelong friends, and I go back every year—and, like Joan Slonczewski, I’m an academic who hasn’t much trod outside the ivory. So, and maybe we’re headed into de gustibus here, I view myself and my fellow alumni as having led basically charmed lives. Some of them have gone through very bad things, of course—the recent rape scandal is testament to that—but most, like me, haven’t. Charmed lives are great to live, of course, but I think it’s hard to make them interesting to read about, especially when they’re the only thing in your field of view. We do get a bit of “reality” in the form of the town, which relies on the college EMS and its future version of Habitat for Humanity, but no sustained engagement.
(As with MEMORY, I chose this book based on what looked most interesting between Okorafor-Mbachu and Valente. The library didn’t have THE ALCHEMY OF STONE, and this narrowly squeaked out over THE HOUSE OF DISCARDED DREAMS, largely because it was written by an academic and because I know I’m going to get around to Ekaterina Sedia eventually. I may have drawn the short straw on a book-versus-book basis, but now I know about a new author, which is cool.)