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Slonczewski Pushes the Frontier of Sci-Fi With Latest Novel

Staff Writer

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 02:12


Sam Colt

Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski poses with her latest novel, The Highest Frontier. The book, Slonczewski’s first in over 10 years, takes place in the future at fictional Frontera College.


Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski has her own Wikipedia article, because in her spare time, she doesn’t read novels — she writes them. Last Friday in Peirce Hall Lounge, a number of Kenyon faculty led a community discussion on Slonczewski’s lastest book, The Highest Frontier

The book, published this year, follows the life of a first-year who attends a small college owned by the state of Ohio. 

It sounds like Kenyon, but the college operates out of a space satellite 100 years in the future, and things are complicated by invading space aliens. 

Both The Highest Frontier and Slonczewski’s earlier work, A Door Into Ocean (1986), have received the John W. Campell Award for best science fiction novel. 

Slonczewski said her time at Kenyon helped inspire The Highest Frontier.

“In general, my works are inspired by my experiences in biology and my experiences with students, and the kind of questions students raise,” she said. “For instance, a student might ask whether plants can feel, or whether plants can experience life the way humans do.”

Thinking about plants in this way might seem ridiculous, but biology is often surprising.

“We can look at the fact that plants and humans have a shared ancestry,” Slonczewski said. “Well, there are certain things you can study in plants that are relative to humans, such as stress resistance, resistance to oxidation and resistance to virus infection. In my book, I imagined that I actually engineered a plant to have human-like neurons and behavior.”

Interactions with Kenyon staff have also influenced Slonczewski’s writing. She recounted asking an administrator if there were any current Kenyon students who were “illegal aliens.” The administrator replied, “No, we don’t have illegal aliens at Kenyon, we have undocumented students.”

After this conversation, Slonczewski decided to include a character who is a literal alien.

 “In the book, there is one student who is very obviously a space alien,” she said. “People have complained to me about how obvious it was, that this student was an alien in the book. And I asked one of the deans, ‘What would you do if you thought one of the students was a space alien?’ and they replied, ‘Um, I don’t know. Is there something we should know?’” 

Slonczewski has always had an interest in science. 

Her father is a theoretical physicist who has won several international awards for his studies on magnetism, which might explain why Slonczewski gravitates toward writing science fiction.

“The ideas that I have could not be contained in mainstream fiction,” she said.

A Door Into Ocean (1986), is about an all-female planet. 

Another, which Slonczewski’s Biology in Science Fiction class is currently reading, is called Brain Plague (2000) and deals with the issues that arise when people connect their brains to the Internet.

Slonczewski offered words of encouragement to Kenyon students with literary ambitions.

“My editors are always looking for new writers, and I am very interested in reading the work of students,” she said. “If I see work that looks publishable, I will pass it on to my editors.”

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