The Highest Frontier

The Highest Frontier

by Joan Slonczewski

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765337412
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 08/28/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 1,119,270
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JOAN SLONCZEWSKI lives in Gambier, Ohio and chairs the department of biology at Kenyon College.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

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."

"Dad ..."

"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 twentythree, 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.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Highest Frontier"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Joan Slonczewski.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Highest Frontier 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
billsearth on LibraryThing 27 days ago
This is a wel constructed plot of a very interesting fictional futue. The science fiction part is both technological communication, and biolological evolution. This is superimposed on an earth whose climate change and environmental degredation have continued to progress to nearly unlivable conditions. The plot is sprinkled with good characters who mostly try to improve the quality of life for their friends, community and school.The author had a good deal of knowledge of ecology, ecolgical trends, and biology prior to constructing the plot and then the story. The author has also continued the trend in increased partsan politics polarized citizen philosophies and increased college cost trends and the trend in single source media. With this background, the book is very believable and exciting to read.
squirrelsohno on LibraryThing 27 days ago
It has been ten years since Joan Slonczewski¿s THE CHILDREN STAR, but the author is back with a bang with the recently released THE HIGHEST FRONTIER. Delving into a rather new arena with a story focused on the exploits of a girl born to leaders, cloned from leaders, and destined to be a leader as she enters her first year of college in a space habitat orbiting Earth, Slonczewski enters a new frontier for her writing easily, but not without a few hiccups.I should preface this review by saying that Slonczewski is a microbiology professor by trade, and it does show in her writing. Several of her books have been about sentient microbes. This one, however, is rather tame in setting by comparison. About 100 years in the future, Earth has become decimated by climate change and pollution, and the only safe haven left is a network of space habitats in orbit around the Earth. Religious leaders have proclaimed this the Firmament, God¿s territory. Jenny Ramos Kennedy is girl who lost her twin brother and has spent the past few months trying to overcome her mental issues, fears, and inability to speak publicly before coming to Frontera College orbiting high above the Earth. Paired with her story is a Presidential race and the spread of an alien organism called the Ultraphyte which had helped in the decimation of Earth, releasing cyanide and killing thousands.The one place where Slonczewski never falters is her attention to biological detail, but at the same time, this does have a tendency to draw out the book and slow the pacing down to a crawl. There are even biology classes in the book which could substitute for a real biology class, with such detail that, despite having been a biology major for a year (bad idea), I was confused. Even more so than her previous books, I feel like THE HIGHEST FRONTIER is some love story to biology, possibly making it difficult for those that are not from a scientific background to get into the story.One thing I loved was the characters. Each one was brilliantly crafted and came to life on the pages. I especially loved Jenny¿s love interest Tom, an Amish kid who left the world he grew up in to come to Frontera ¿ for a good reason. I¿ll let you read the book and find out more about him. Anouk the French hacker, though, was my favorite. Imagine being banned from Earth for your many attempts at breaking into government computer networks. She¿s a genius through and through, but her common sense might be just a little lacking.While not quite at the level as her 1986 masterpiece A DOOR INTO OCEAN (one of my favorite books of all time, you must read it), Slonczewski puts forward a very welcome new book that is sure to win new fans and put a new spin on the science fiction genre yet again. The creativity that went into this book and the fascinating finale should win this book awards. I would definitely recommend this book, but I suggest having google open at all times, especially if you don¿t know Spanish. Which I don¿t.VERDICT: Though complex and full of biological terms that might be offputting, THE HIGHEST FRONTIER is a fascinating speculative look at what the world might be in 100 years. With great characters and an all-too-believable plot, this is a book worth checking out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
Global warming continues terraforming the earth. Botanist student Jennifer Ramos Kennedy knows first hand the impact when the rising sea broke through the New York City wall leaving her twin bother Jordi and others dead. Still grieving and with a heavy heart Jennifer applies and is admitted to Frontera College whose campus is a spacehab tied to the Earth. The freshman struggles at first to adapt school. However as she becomes acclimated to attending college, she makes friends with her autistic roommate and falls in love. On the other hand, Jennifer finds the downside of being part of an influential political family as some people scorn her and others want to use her. Then there is the terraforming cyanide producing ultraphyte aliens. Using extrapolations of present trends in science, politics, and society Joan Slonczewski provides an entertaining science fiction satire. Humor is used to mock those in power who prefer bumper sticker pseudoscience over scientific data. The locales are top rate while the cast especially the key students are fully developed in support of the botany student. Readers will enjoy Jennifer's freshman year at school. Harriet Klausner