Monday, July 5, 2010

Maximum Ride: Adrenaline Reading for Science Kids

In a stroke of true, teenage-throwback escapism, I've been reading the Maximum Ride science fiction series for, yes, young adults, by James Patterson.

One of my all-time favorite SciFi young adult series--all-time favorite series at all, really--is the Animorphs series, which I devoured for several years.  Aliens, group dynamics, secret powers, saving the world, hard choices and moral I loved the whole occasionally-hokey ride.  A lot more than any other of the staple YA series of the time:  Babysitters Club (most ardently NOT SciFi), which I never even tried to read, and Goosebumps (not really SciFi either), which was okay but didn't ultimately do much for me.

Anyway, the premise of Maximum Ride was extremely Animorph-ish, what with the science and the quest to save the world and the animal-like superhuman powers, so I picked it up as a 23-year-old because I've been pretty upset lately and I thirsted for my Animorph-loving escapist past.

There are so far six books, of which I've read five (the sixth is still checked out), averaging about 1.5 hours per book.  I like them, and because cliffhanging suspense is apparently Mr. Patteron's thing, they are hard to put down until I've finished.

They don't have the depth nor the satisfaction of the Animorphs series though, at least not yet.

I am very taken by the characters:  six part human, part avian "genetic experiments" (or, kids with wings!) who were broken out of their life in dog-crates by a sympathetic (or was he?) mad scientist who raised them and taught them things like self-defense and having a conscious, must now run from the scientists who created them and along the way discover how they are supposed to save the world.  Fourteen-year-old Maximum Ride, "Max" to her friends, is a kick-ass and no-nonsense heroine, yet has sympathetic and captivating vulnerabilities.  I love the rawness, the passion, the courage of her point of view.  Watching her grow up, make choices, face hardship, defend her flock and navigate teenage emotions is inspiring, especially so if I were still a fourteen-year-old girl myself.   Fang (lacking parents, the kids named themselves) is every girl's dream of a strong and silent hero/sidekick, the other kids are quirky and funny, and the premise of six-year-old Angel--possessing both a six-year-old's lack of judgement or impulse control and the scary ability to both read and control minds--is truly interesting.   And of course, who doesn't want to read about kids who can fly, and dream of such an amazing ability for herself?

Because of such rich characterization, I had high hopes for the character-driven nature of the story, and while it does have it's character-driven moments, in truth the majority of the plot is a lot of the same:  bird kids running away from some evil figure or other, assisted by their kick-ass fighting skills and superhuman powers, with myterious "hey Max remember to save the world" admonishments thrown in from various sources.  It is an action series after all.    Enough real story, as opposed to kids going from one fight scene to another to another, is there that I keep reading, but in a sense the frustrating sparseness of it is why I keep reading.  I want to follow that glimmer of "story" as opposed to "action scene" to see if it gets anywhere.  And it does, but not as satisfactorily as I would like.

In a writing class I took once I learned about the difference between "sustained narrative" and "cheating narrative."  In sustained narrative, interesting, unexpected, and mysterious events happen, and those keep the reader reading.  And eventually, all of those things link together, bring the story forward in a logical yet powerful way, and are explained to sasisfaction.  Example:  the Harry Potter series.  Hidden things are mentioned, and eventually they end up being important.  We always come to understand how and why all events are related and important, and for that "everthing fits together" aspect, we the reader feel very satisfied.

In cheating narrative, by contrast, interesting, unexpected and mysterious events also happen, and also keep the reader reading, so he can figure out what the heck that was about.  And then those interesting, unexpected and mysterious things are not brought up again, or are not well explained, or turn out to not really fit very well or not really have much function in the rest of the story.  The mystery worked as a cliffhanger:  you read on because you want to know.  But then you never really find out, because the story goes somewhere else instead.  The mystery was then like a cheap trick just to keep you going.  The reader is not very satisfied.

A good bit of what goes on in the Maximum Ride books feels like cheating narrative.    Example: the person who rescues Max and her flock from the science lab, raises them, and then dissappears turns out to have been working for the Evil Scientists all along.  He shows up fairly often in the chase, tells them cryptic and contradictory things, sometimes helps them and sometimes hurts them, and you're left really confused. Rest of Paragraph Spoiler Alert!: In a later book he turns out to have been helping them all along but wanting them to pass "tests", to make sure they really are good enough to "save the world."  It seems he's a good guy again, but his whole convuluted involvement is explained only in a few "he said he did it for a little of this and little of this and some of this" expository sentences that do little to expose his inner feelings and motivation, and do little justice to the fairly large part he played in the first half of the series.  The second half doesn't seem to have much to do with him at all.

The whole "Max you have to save the world" thread feels a little bit that way to me too.  There's a lot of hype about how she has to save the world.  She even has a Voice in her head telling her cryptic messages to that affect.  It seems like a big deal and you wonder what she has to save it from.  But it ends up being something different every time.  A little fight with some Seriously Evil Mad Scientists.  A little anti-global-warming activism.  Yet all those cryptic message made it sound like there Was Some Big Conspiracy and Unifying Purpose for which she was created.  (The cover blurbs further this notion: "If she lives, the world lives. It's that simple." Yet I don't yet see any evidence of the world's fate being sigunarly tied to hers, even though she takes out some bad people with the help of her friends.) Maybe we'll find out what that is later (the series isn't done after all), but so far it is either cheating narrative or just not-very-well-put-together continued hints, which feels like cheating narrative even if it isn't intended to be.

In general, for a man who pumps out the novels (look at the "upcoming releases" section of his website: five books coming out in a space of two months) I think he gets a little sloppy with his work.  Five stories is a lot to keep track of at once.  In the first half of the series Max is described as blond, yet in later books she's suddenly brown-headed.  For example.  The general not-tied-together-as-nicely-as-suspensful-plot-devices-promise might be a symptom of that as well.  I don't think it's cheating narrative on purpose, and it isn't always cheating narrative.  Just enough to get on my nerves.

My final peeve of the series is a lack of beleivability in the bad guys.  First you have the Evil Mad Scientists, who created Max and flock by grafting bird DNA onto test tube babies and/or children given to science for money by poor parents.  They treat the kids like science experience, referring to them as "its" even when the kids smart off, refusing to treat them as humans even though they can talk to them, etc.  That just isn't beleivable to me.  I don't think there's enough people who would treat something that clearly feels pain and emotional hurt very much like a human child, as something not worthy of even the barest of empathy.  One or two, maybe, but a whole multinational corporation...he just didn't make that believable for me.  Especially becasue what this Itex wants remains a little bit of a mystery until later in the series.  (It turns out to be world domination, but the how, the why, etc, is still not very clear.)  Then post-Itex you have some other random genetically or robotically enhanced (but by whom?) bad guys whose past and motivations, beyond just being jerks, also aren't all that clear.

In short, Maximum Ride is a fun, witty, wild science-fiction ride, but it leaves me feeling unsure if James Patterson is really trying or really succeeding at going somewhere.  If I were a young adult, I'd really like it, and I'd reccomend it to young adults, because of the science, the strong heroine with strong values, the self-reliance think-for-yourself aspects.  It's possible that it really will go somewhere, and the seemingly random threads really will be resolved.  Judging from what I've seen so far I don't think they'll be resloved particularly masterfully, but even so it'll be an interesting and fun read.

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