Updraft is the only YA book I read as part of my Hugo prep this year, but when I saw it on the shortlist for the Nebula I had to pick it up. One of the coolest things about the book is the setting. Humanity lives among a series of living spires that rise up from a permanent cloud level and thus have no experience with the ground. Some of the spires are connected by living bridges, but for the most part trade, commerce, hunting, and basically everything that involves traveling happens by flying around in sophisticated hang-gliders. A book full of people flying around is just plain cool, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it a lot.
Along with the fact that everybody gets to fly all the time, the book also has a pretty well-drawn culture to go with it. I felt kind of short-changed on the big picture backstory. There’s talk of a time before “the Rising” which I guess means before the living towers were grown up past the cloud level, but never a hint of what happened to get people to take up residence in living spires in the first place. Then again: the fact that I was frustrated by not knowing more is a pretty good sign. I wanted to know more about how things had gotten to where they were in the story, and that shows I was invested.
Instead of a big-picture story however, the plot of the book was much more short-term. The big mystery that is the centerpiece of the story only goes back a single generation: the protagonist learns what happened between her mother and her father. Her best friend learns the secrets of his parents. And then in the end a mystery is exposed and resolved, but—because it only addresses short-run problems—it’s kind of unsatisfying for me. There are much deeper problems with the society that is pictured—including exploitation and human sacrifice!—and I expected / wanted the book to interact more with those injustices. There are also some hints, although not enough to be really sure, that the story may be set on far-future Earth. So both of these things—the social injustices and the hints of a lost legacy that corresponds with the world the audience recognizes—call for some forward momentum in the story. And there wasn’t much.
But the biggest problem for me was the definitive problem of all YA: teenagers. I’ve been listening to Jim Dale’s definitive performance of Harry Potter again over the last couple of months. I’ve read / listened to all the books countless times, but it’s been a few years since my last pass through. When I got to The Order of the Phoenix, I was struck as never before by how whiny and irrational Harry is at 15 years old. You find yourself just wanting to punch him on a fairly regularly basis for all his angry outbursts at Ron an Hermione and all his pointless, self-destructive moping. Maybe I’m just happening to pay attention to it for the first time, because it never bothered me as much before, or maybe I’m just getting too old.
I don’t know, but my point is that if Harry Potter—which I love—can bother me with it’s annoying adolescent characters than there’s really no surprise that other YA protagonists tend to get under my skin as well. The action for this book kicks off when the protagonist carelessly flouts a serious rule, endangers her whole tower in general and her friends and family in particular, and brings down serious punishments on herself and the people closest to her all for a pretty inane reason. There are several other key points where the plot moves forward in direct proportion to the stupidity of her decisions, and at least one big reveal that flops because what is coming is so incredibly obvious that you can’t help but be annoyed that she walks right into it.1
Still, the problem of authors reaching their hands into the clockwork of their books to move a stuck piece so that the wheels and cogs of the plot can keep on spinning is hardly unique to YA and, if anything, teenage characters get more of a pass for being thoughtless, irrational, melodramatic, or clueless because, well: teenagers.
And the world really is quite interesting, with all kinds of intricate cultures and places to visit. The characters were also quite interesting with their own motivations and perspectives, and some genuinely touching relationships. There’s a lot to like in Updraft, even if there are also some rough edges. The character’s main strength, it turns out, is screaming very loudly at things.2 So we’ve got this cool, headstrong, determined young woman who braves all kinds of dangers—not to mention soars around on literal wings! —uncovering the mysteries of this strange new civilization… and then she screams at things. Lots to like, in other words, but it didn’t quite come together for me.