An accomplished science-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.