The Highest Frontierby Joan Slonczewski
The first SF novel in more than ten years from the scientist and author of A Door into Ocean. A girl goes to college in orbit, in a future transformed by technology, global warming, and invasive species.
An accomplishedscience-fiction writer and biology professor at a small liberal arts college draws on all her professional experience to portray a young woman's freshman year in space.
Some years into the future, global warming and a cyanide-emitting, apparently mindless alien creature called an Ultraphyte have made the Earth nearly uninhabitable. Jennifer Ramos Kennedy, descendant of three presidents (in fact, a clone of one of them) has been groomed to lead the fight to conserve the planet's remaining resources.Unfortunately, a genetic flaw makes public speaking incredibly difficult, and she's devastated by the recent death of her more charismatic twin brother, Jordi. She literally distances herself from her problems by matriculating at Frontera College, located in a lushly terraformed space habitat. However, Earth politics still demand her attention, as she's linked to several key figures in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, a hotly contested race between the liberal, science-embracing Unity party (read: Democrats) and the Centrists (a conservative, Tea Party–like faction which insists that outer space ends at the moon's orbit). Meanwhile, the Ultraphyte problem also follows Jennifer to Frontera, forcing her from the quiet life she desires to take a public stand. Slonczewski's worldbuilding has always gone deep; she gives the profoundest thought to how biology, culture, social structure, language, politics and economics combine to shape the future. Although the author is solidly on the side of science, she's not blindly so: although the elite genetically engineer their children to be disease-free and brilliant, there's a high incidence of psychological and social disorders amongst them.She's also clear-eyed about the type of personal compromises politicians (including academic politicians) must make in order to win votes and money.
Jennifer's story feels unfinished; readers will certainly hope to follow her through to graduation.
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The space lift rose from the Pacific, climbing the cords of anthrax bacteria. Anthrax would have blackened the blood, before the bacteria were tamed to lift freight into orbit. Now anthrax brought tourists up to spacehab Frontera, ready to hit the off-world slots. And it brought students to Frontera College, safe above their disaster-challenged planet.
Frontera College was tomorrow’s destination for Jennifer Ramos Kennedy. The day before lift-off, Jenny was trimming her orchids in the greenhouse atop her home in Somers, New York. Shears hovered at a fading purple vanda as Jenny’s brain streamed the blades to snip the stem, just above the node where the orchid would bloom. Outside the window, a laser sliced that afternoon’s growth of kudzu. Three-lobed leaves showered down through the vines, revealing the yellow snake-like swathe of an ultraphyte.
“¡Oye!” Ultraphytes from off-world had killed three thousand people when they first crept ashore from Great Salt Lake. They’d since spread across the country, to Somers and beyond. The one outside now twined around a kudzu vine, absorbing ultraviolet from the August sun. A squirrel scampered up to the off-world invader, attracted by the eyespot of one of the ultraphyte’s thirteen yellow cells. Cells the size of an apple; a microbe you didn’t need a microscope to see. But biting one was not a good idea.
Jenny blinked open a window in her toybox, a cube of light that hovered just before her eyes. The toybox windows flashed everything from the president’s latest poll to Somers High’s last slanball score. The window she blinked was her mother’s. It streamed her brain’s request into Toynet, then out to her mother, wherever she was just then. The window flashed away precious seconds while the ultraphyte began to slink off through the vines.
At last her mother appeared in the toybox window. “Jenny, hijita, did you upload your room? Un momento, I’ve got an investor.” Soledad Kennedy, of the Cuban Kennedys, her hair swept up in a fashionable smartcomb. Her Wall Street office overlooked the Hudson seawall.
“Mama, there’s an ultra outside. Could I—”
“Call Homeworld Security. Make sure Clive covers you.” Clive Rusanov was the ToyNews anchor. Soledad’s hovering face shifted, attending her investor. “Yes, hombre, anthrax futures are just the thing.”
“Homeworld Security? ¡Vaya!” What a mess, when she should be packing for college. If only she could catch the ultraphyte and keep it in the cellar for experiments, like last time, when she’d found one in the kitchen huddled on a saltshaker. Ultraviolet photosynthesis—a new source of energy. Jenny’s science fair project had won her a trip to Washington and a scholarship that she’d donated to the runner-up. But since then, security had tightened in the War on Ultra. Table salt was now a controlled substance. Frontera College would never let her keep a cyanide-emitting invader up there in the spacehab.
When she looked again out the window, the ultra was gone. It couldn’t have crept far, but she no longer saw it in the mass of leaves below. If only Jordi were here—Jordi Ramos Kennedy, her twin brother cultured from their grandfather, President Joseph Ramos. The storied “President Joe” who’d launched the drive for Jupiter. Jordi would have been out the window by now, scaling the vines after the ultra. But of course Jordi would never be here again.
Below the rooftop greenhouse, the undulating sea of kudzu bathed all of Somers, from her home on the hill down to the Elephant Hotel and for miles around, all the way to the Hudson. In her toybox, three windows opened, bright cubes of light calling toypoint receivers outside the house. Each window combed the kudzu for the vanished creature.
Another blink, and there was her father, from the second-floor toyroom where he ran the North American branch of Toynet. George Ramos, the president’s son, with his usual brush-cut hair and his white shirt with two neckties: red dots on blue, and red squares.
“Dad? Can you help me find the ultraphyte?”
The letters scrolled: “How long?” Her father could talk but preferred text. Hard to believe he’d grown up playing coin tricks beneath his dad’s desk in the Oval Office.
“Four point three minutes.” Her brainstream converted to text. Everyone could stream some text, but children who started young trained their brains to stream fast. Jenny had gotten an early start, by her father’s side.
“How fast?” texted George.
“It creeps a meter in about five seconds, then turns.”
“Assuming random walk, most probable distance: ten point two meters.”
“Thanks, Dad.” She imagined the entire North American Toynet slowed by a nanosecond while George Ramos looked away.
“Jenny, why must you leave home?” Blue text meant her father was sad. “You could attend MIT or Oxford right here.”
“We could add on to the house, just like Iroquoia.” The Iroquois had been his passion since childhood, when he’d created the Iroquoia toyworld. The toyworld was so authentic, upstate Mohawks had adopted him as Dahdio-gwat-hah, Spreader of Data. “The Haudenosaunee would build a longhouse for twenty families. They would extend it with fresh-cut saplings, covered with elm bark.…”
Jenny had seen an elm tree once in the Botanical Garden, a crown of serrated teardrop leaves; it looked naked without kudzu. She scanned three toybox windows out to a ten-meter radius around the original site. As her three views wove in amid the kudzu, one caught a glint of yellow. All three windows zoomed down on the creature, so close she could make out the eyespots on its apple-sized cells.
A trained first responder, Jenny blinked her EMS button, the familiar snake wrapped around a staff. “Ultra sighted.” Her toybox filled with blinking windows.
Sprinting downstairs two at a time, she blinked ahead at the door to open, then burst outside. The heat smothered her, and the sun sparkled up from her nose ring. She brushed her long dark hair out of her eyes, already damp from sweat. Cicadas hummed above the fashionably kudzu-graced mansion, red brick like the Somers Elephant Hotel. Overhead whined a Manhattan commuter, less frequent than they were before the methane quake. A drone hovered watchfully above the Ramos Kennedy home, and a pair of white-faced DIRGs moved out from the back. Direct Intervention Robotic Guardians, the DIRGs had always looked out for her and Jordi, now for her alone. Once a DIRG had caught a paparazzo none too gently and cracked his rib. Soledad had arranged a quiet settlement, and the paps backed off.
“Back indoors,” warned the DIRG. “Indoors till all clear.”
On the ground, Jenny spotted the fallen squirrel. It must have succumbed to the ultra’s puff of cyanide. The latest in a long stream of victims, ever since Ultra Day, when the seed had sprouted in Great Salt Lake and the first ultras came ashore, their cyanide asphyxiating people and animals. Jenny checked the cross at her neck for her tube of anticyanide. The cross slipped through the sweat on her palms. She began to climb the fuzzy leaves, wincing as her arm was sore from a twist during slanball practice. A Cuban tree frog leapt out; if the ultra hadn’t got the squirrel, the frog probably would have. And a python would get the frog. That was the Somers food chain.
Her windows again converged on the ultra’s new position. The yellow swathe had narrowed and stretched, now almost two meters. She blinked to broadcast the coordinates.
“Back indoors.” From behind, a firm robotic hand gripped her shoulder.
“¡Vaya! Get off me!”
The DIRG lifted her by the chest like a two-year-old and set her down at the door. Safe on her feet, Jenny blinked her disabler, and the DIRG froze. Qué lata, these DIRGs. There would be no more DIRGs at Frontera—a huge battle with her mother, but for once Jenny prevailed. After all, what was the spacehab if not one giant security drone suspended in space, pristine, free of so much as a mosquito.
From the east sailed six Homeworld Security drones. The drones hummed in the distance, then suddenly grew loud. Shafts of fire bore down upon the hapless ultra, right where Jenny had just climbed. Flames erupted, and the air turned acrid. Kudzu leaves flew in all directions as the flames spread. A good thing the home was brick. Jenny’s view through her toybox windows got scrambled, enough to make her sick. But one window just caught a small blob of ultraphyte, five cells worth, that had pinched off and moved out on its own, much faster than the original colony; a typical stress response. The drones did not seem to notice, all chasing the larger portion.
While the other DIRG hosed down the burning tree, Jenny debated with herself whether to inform Homeworld about the escaped ultra. She shrugged. If six Homeworld Security drones couldn’t spot a five-celled ultra … The last time, she’d trapped it in a tank in the cellar. The captive ultra had huddled in the cellar, while her respirometer measured the gases it breathed. When the UV came on, the ultra made oxygen, just like a plant.
The ToyNews window opened. There stood Clive Rusanov. “Jenny Ramos Kennedy, like other heroic members of her family, strikes another blow for Earth against the alien cyanide-breathing invader.”
“Stress response,” corrected Jenny. Ultraphytes didn’t breathe cyanide; they released it briefly under stress, like a clover leaf. “Nunca lo corrijas,” never correct him, her mother always warned; “it makes you sound too smart.”
The ToyNews anchor patted down his slick dark hair, style twenty-three, first one side, then the other. He faced her level, his height and those of his interviewees all set the same; otherwise, she would have looked down at him from her presidential six feet two. “Always saving lives.” As a first responder, on other calls she’d treated shock and diagnosed a fractured tibia. “Rescuing the planet. Your last day on Earth.”
Jenny smiled, and her eyes reflexively closed. “Ojos abiertos,” she recalled; her eyes flew open. “Not my last, I hope.” An inane start. She found her press prompt, the words already scrolling across her toybox: It’s an honor to do my small part … “‘It’s an honor to do my small part … for the global War on Ultra.’”
“ToyNews—From our box to yours.” They were going live. The anchor put his hands at his sides and leveled his chin. “Clive Rusanov, here in Somers, New York, with an exclusive report from presidential granddaughter Jenny Ramos Kennedy.” And great-granddaughter of another, Jenny added to herself.
Clive hovered in the toybox, his view spliced next to hers, as if he were there on the spot with her instead of across the country in his L.A. studio. Jenny’s tall elfin form was the very image of her culture source, her mother’s grandmother, President Rosa Schwarz. In all, three presidents and four senators in her family tree. Only her eyes were her own, her own eyes dark and furtive as an ancient Arawak in the caverns of Cuba, her mother’s home state. At Jenny’s right ToyNews spliced a view of the downtown Somers elephant, Old Bet, atop her wrought-iron pedestal: the town’s famous statue of the first circus elephant in America. The little elephant perched high above, like a Manhattanite trying to escape the flood.
“Ms. Ramos, in the spirit of her presidential clone source, does her part to rid the Earth of our planet’s most toxic invader.” Actually, President Schwarz had banned carbon emissions and built the first spacehab. “Ms. Ramos, do you believe we’ve turned the corner in the War on Ultra?”
The press prompt scrolled: As you know, Clive, my family …
“As you know…” Whispering would not do. Her stomach knotted, but she tried again. “As you know, Clive … my family has a long tradition of leadership protecting Earth’s precious global environment.”
The pollmeter, collecting brainstream from all the millions of listeners, rose a few tenths of a unit. People wanted to help the environment.
“And so … I will do any small part I can to help, like anyone in Somers would do.” Her eyes lost track of the prompt, and her long lashes fluttered. Jenny was no Rosa; a gene missed in the embryo made her freeze in public. “Public mutism,” on chromosome 18. The settlement had doubled her trust fund.
Clive’s immaculately combed head nodded knowingly. “Your last day on Earth, before heading up to college at the Firmament.” “Firmament” was the Centrist word for the sphere of the biblical heavens that centered on Earth. Centrists now held the Senate and the White House.
“College in orbit,” Jenny corrected. Of course Clive knew better, but he always gave equal time. “In orbit around Earth, third from Sol, Orion Arm, Milky Way.”
The pollmeter dipped precipitously. Clive smiled with a knowing nod. “The brightest star of two presidential clans.” Actually, three. “And here for comment is New York assemblyman Ned Tran.”
There stood Jenny’s suited neighbor, his height, like Clive’s, stretched to equal hers. Ned Tran had led the fight to make public schools teach that Earth went around the Sun. “Thanks, Jenny,” the assemblyman was saying, “for your contribution to Somers ultraphyte eradication.” Jenny had run Tran’s Unity campaign against the Centrists, had tied hundreds of purple balloons, had sent thousands of Toynet thank-yous. He’d won by four votes.
“Those ultras,” Tran went on, “destroyed our ozone and poisoned half our country.…” Actually, the seed from outer space had taken advantage of Earth’s own ozone loss to sprout on this planet and drink the UV, but nunca lo corrijas. “But thanks to the efforts of citizens like you, Jenny, this little Somers corner of the Milky Way is ninety percent ultra-free. Another victory in the War on Ultra. Another great reason to reside in Somers, convenient to the Big Apple yet a tidy distance from the next methane quake.” And, he might have added, still far from the parched Death Belt that stretched from Nevada to Tennessee.
The assemblyman faded out, presumably drawing less stream from the pollmeter than the Ramos Kennedy star. “Jenny,” observed Clive, “your family has made more than its share of sacrifices for the public good.” Old Bet now appeared, spliced next to the crowned head of La Liberté, whose feet had emerged just last spring thanks to new pumps at the seawall. Open water—the sight always hit Jenny in the gut. “Your late brother saved how many lives when the seawall broke? How does it feel, going off to college without him?”
Jordi Ramos Kennedy, the cultured likeness of his presidential grandfather, Joe Ramos, beneath whose desk George had played. His speeches already drawing crowds, Jordi was addressing a Unity rally in Battery Park when the methane quake hit. Ocean warming and deep-sea mining had destabilized the vast methane ice deposits on the sea floor. The crowd had ten minutes to empty the park and get upstairs before the waves breached the seawall and filled Manhattan like a bowl. Jordi had slipped the DIRGs and run along the beach, calling out, until he was swept out to sea.
Her eyes found the prompt again. Emphasize the consonants, her mother always said. Jenny expelled each word. “I … am … proud to remember, Clive, that Jordi left his estate to the Manhattan restoration fund.”
The pollmeter rose cheerfully. Everyone liked a hero. Jordi, who’d lost his life saving others. And Jenny, the twin who lived.
Abruptly she pulled the diad off her forehead. Lights vanished and silence fell, while the diad lay buried in her clenched fist, its brainstream cut off. No more polls, EMS calls, or notes from her ten thousand playmates. Only the August sun shone, and cicadas keened in the kudzu jungle. Enough of Clive; he’d got what he needed, and he’d edit it to make the family look good. Jenny sprinted back into the house, dodging stray kudzu vines.
She passed the kitchen, where the salt was now kept in a locked safe; one shaker held enough of the limiting nutrient to grow a thirteen-cell ultra to twenty-nine. Then she mounted the stairs, step by step, each step a singular event in the silent world. She looked once more around the Lincoln Bedroom furniture she’d uploaded to college: her portrait of Rosa above the desk, her favorite cups and balls trick, her science fair prizes, and Jordi’s slanball trophies. In the spacehab, all her things would print out in amyloid, a bacterial protein that self-assembled any form. Amyloid desk, amyloid trophies, amyloid snacks for her fridge.
Live organisms would not yet print out; nothing more complex than a flu virus. But three of her orchids would join her on the space lift, up the anthrax to Frontera: her prize-winning Blood Star, the sweet-smelling vanilla, and the giant vanda with its plate-sized purple blooms. Frontera, the first college on the high frontier, with its own Olympic slanball court in micrograv. Frontera College might outlast life on Earth, with Earth’s methane quakes, death belts, and invading ultraphytes.
Copyright © 2011 by Joan Slonczewski
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