I had a bit of a problem with UpLink. I found it much more difficult to like than GroundTies.
The biggest area of concern for me this time was not the plot, but rather, my reader expectations of science fiction and literature in general. Why do I read these kinds of works? Does UpLink satisfy those expectations?
I enjoy sci-fi/fantasy as an escapism. Live another life. Go to impossible places to do impossible things. Be inspired when heroes overcome overwhelming odds. Marvel as those victories or failures change them in surprising ways.
UpLink stops being that kind of story once it enters into this intense focus on Stephen Ridenour as a damaged human being. It unbalanced the recipe for science fiction and becomes something else. It's a character driven plot, with sci-fi elements that explain the back story for the character's flaws, set in a sci-fi universe.
But the story loses its external focus and drive on the problems at hand and instead turns inward to the hero's struggles as the solution to the plot problems. Granted, that's how good fiction should work-- but this book takes that premise too far-- it goes too deep. Unfortunately what we find inside our hero is not inspiring or uplifting or honestly addressed -- in the end of all fiction, that is a really important element. Great fiction resolves character too.
Characters with secrets are intriguing. Characters who have dark pasts and suffer from them can be very attractive. We can even like characters who will never overcome their damage and in the end succumb to it--because they show us they are strong and have no need of our pity and never give in to their own self-pity.
Yet, I really feel like Ridenour is a failed hero.
So what does that mean? We have anti-hero characters in fiction all the time. No, this is a little different. He's a protagonist who is very hard to like--yet designed to be a hero, the good guy, someone we should like and pull for.
In UpLink we can feel many things about Ridenour but liking him is a stretch. We pity him in the first book because he's been unjustly damaged. He's weak. But then in the second, he does some terrible things and turns more toward a dark protagonist. When I say he does terrible things, I mean terrible things for a hero/protagonist to do: the cave scene with the drug "accident" and Anevai, the "seduction" scene with Wesley. Sorry, but these are really just selfish, self-preserving acts. They are cruel and painful to the other person involved. They are actions that clearly demonstrate our hero is in denial about his personal truths; they are painful to him and to everyone around him, including the reader.
My big, big problem here is that these issues are absolutely not resolved in any meaningful fashion. I can forgive plot resolutions that fail-- character resolutions are much harder to forgive because they demand so much personal investment.
All we get are excuses from Stephen and I can only assume we are meant to let him off the hook because of his "issues." Wesley, Anevai, Cantrel--all these characters seem to pity him instead of hate him because they inexplicably love him.
But look at this from an objective reader's standpoint. When were we ever given a chance to love him? Where inside of all that angst were we shown something of his true worth? Where are his redeeming qualities, his strength of character, his moment of taking action that shows us he has the capability of rising up and meeting the challenges set before him?
If not those, then where at least is his charm? His self-deprecating sense of humor? A sparkly coat and a strong jawline is not enough.
We just don't get much of anything to like about him-- all we get to know about him from his actions (where true character peeks through) are that he's insecure, depends on drugs to make life bearable, is incredibly defensive when people are nice to him and has some awful secrets that have left him an emotionally crippled child in a man's body--who has no business getting into an adult relationship as long as he is this messed up. (Wake up, Wesser.)
We can't love him just because everyone else in the story loves him--we must be shown why he's worthy of our time through his own actions of goodness or strength. He's got to earn it. For some readers, heavily flawed character weaknesses doesn't incite sympathy or empathy--just scorn. (I guess I fall into that category, but in my defense, there was an awful lot of rehashing memories, dreams, flashbacks, sudden panic attacks and lashing out at people just trying to help. A little angst goes a long way for me.)
Add to this the unfortunate fact that Ridenour's long suffering backstory has more drama and tension that the real time storyline and it's clear why UpLink missed the mark-- for me anyway.
If this story were actually plot-driven sci-fi and we had some real action, intrigue, suspense, mortal danger, kick-ass aliens, big guns, explosions, space cruiser battles--then who cares about Ridenour's anti-hero/dark protagonist status---because quite frankly---he'd have no time to whine about his deficits. He'd handle whatever issues he needed to handle at the end of a gun or by running away. That's the great thing about sci-fi. It can cover a lot of flaws in an entertaining fashion.
So in the end, I have to reluctantly say this book did not work as I'd hoped for after reading GroundTies. It did not fail on every level, but where it did fail it obviously struck a too sensitive nerve with me. I actually hate to be so critical, but with issues this powerful having been brought to the forefront for hundreds of pages-- there is a real responsibility to actually deal with them.