Monday, September 3, 2012

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Average but snappy (422 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: April 11, 2005 from Headline Books Publishing
Premise: Six genetic experiments, children who had avian DNA grafted into them in the embryo, escaped from the School, the laboratory that created them. Now they're living in isolation and trying to maintain a tenuous family when Angel, the six-year-old among them, is kidnapped and taken back to the School. Maximum Ride and her flock go to rescue their lost member, but venturing back will rip open the wounds of the pasts....and raise more questions.
Warnings: some fairly brutal beatings, children being abused in laboratory experiments
Recommendation: If you're looking for something snappy and don't mind style over substance, you could do a lot worse than this one.

What makes this one fly along: 

Max herself tends to be spot-on, with her emotions often guiding her actions, but never for cheap or shallow reasons. She'll be afraid for a flock member, or furious enough at an injustice to leap into action without thinking, but it always feels realistic for a teenager who's had to be a parent and protector without ever getting a real childhood of her own. She's had to make spur-of-the-moment decisions to save everyone's lives before now, and even thought about saving Angel at the cost of getting everyone but herself out. We never learn all the details of this plan, but she devised it without even considering leaving Angel behind. She's impulsive and brash in a way that sets back the rescue attempt more than once, but that only makes her more real and flawed. The quick thoughts that help her escape from danger sometimes keep her from taking the time to think things through, nicely balancing her greatest strength and weakness. Given how much stress runs through her life, Max is also surprisingly funny. When she's making fun of of the School's location in Death Valley above the Badwater Basin, she thinks that "like, when we got there, we'd see a road paved with good intentions and have to cross the river Styx to get in." The cheap puns about Gasman's constant farting are less amusing, but Max herself keeps a fairly witty mental commentary going, even in the midst of battle.

The pacing in unquestionably snappy; even when everyone is resting, they're tense and plotting the next move. In retrospect, it's obvious that a writer known for thrillers would have a good grasp of pacing, but it's great to see the flock torn between being around the run and fighting to solve several mysteries at once. The Erasers, genetically engineered wolf-human hybrids, hate the flock and want to kill them, holding back only because of orders from their superiors. They keep managing to find Max and the rest at unpredictable intervals, sometimes showing up at once and sometimes vanishing for days at time; the flock starts to relax and they appear at the most vulnerable possible moment. Despite this, the members of the flock manage to enjoy little pleasures like food from street vendors or the opportunity to see a toy store for the first time-- the constant tension means that they're forced to let some of it go to stay sane. This makes them seem much older than their years, which is perfect for people who have been tortured and treated as experimental subjects. Knowing what evil people are capable of somehow gives them a deeper sense of wonder when things go well. 

Some of the moments in this struggle between tension and happiness are great, especially when Fang flies with enormous hawks and they accept him. The avian DNA shows through as more than just convenient wings; these kids are close enough to birds to learn about banking and midair communication from them, and the kids feel more at home in a cave near the birds than they ever have before. If I read on, I'd want to see more of this dynamic; it has so much potential to show how the kids are outcasts among humans but accepted among birds, despite the different amounts of avian DNA.....and then the struggle to communicate and belong, shifting between the avian world of communion and the human world of emotional connections and real talking. The way the hawks participate in an organized rescue attempt is less plausible, but fun to read. 

That struggle to find a place to belong shapes all of the characters, especially Max. After an ill-advised attempt to do a good deed, she has to share her secret with people outside the flock in order to get medical help for her wing. She gets warm clothes, hugs, fresh-baked cookies, and above all a sense of family that lets her trust these people even though she has to leave in a few days. The rest can't truly understand, but they want something similar-- they know it's a bad idea, but they're still willing to dive into dangerous situations if it means that they can learn where their parents are and whether they can ever live normal lives. Failure means being taken back to the lab for more tests and possibly even dissected to help scientists learn to make more successful genetic hybrids, but they push on anyway with truly admirable stubbornness. They're torn between a childhood they've never known and the independence they love, and that produces a rich mixture of wistfulness, rage, and cynicism that helps show them as what they are: children who have been forced to be adults against their wills.

The red pen: 

The beginning is rough, in large part because James Patterson's method of introduction is apparently "everyone walks into breakfast in order and gets a stiff minimalist description so that we know who people are." It's efficient, but also makes everyone seem wooden and flat-- it doesn't help that apparently no one but Max can have more than two personality traits. That aside, this one's biggest flaw is the failure to think through how things actually work and apply those rules consistently. All six members of the flock can fly and have increased powers of speed and strength, but they also start to manifest individual powers; Angel can read minds at the beginning of the book, and the others wind up with a grab bag of skills. Iggy can pick locks and build brilliant explosives, despite being blind-- in some ways, the skills that are simple knacks make the mutant powers less interesting.

The growing powers work at first; psychic powers like Angel's telepathy can normally be handwaved into some vague semblance of science, as can extremely good hearing or the ability to breathe underwater. These things are all fairly standard in science fiction centered on genetic experimentation, and it's more or less fine to have some of those gifts unlock as the characters get older. The problem is when Nudge manages to guess a computer password based on touching the monitor and seeing the password. Some gift of communication with technology would be almost plausible, given that Max has a sophisticated chip in her arm, but it turns out that this power is essentially psychometry, also known as object-reading. Nudge can do things like touch chairs and see the people sitting in them, even picking up their emotions and habits. This is not a scientific thing; it's a hard left turn into the world of magical/occult powers, and in absolutely no other place does the text support the existence of magic. It's the kind of lazy mistake that destroys the reality that the author is trying to build, and Patterson easily could have gotten around this problem in a different way. 

The same holds for the framework: Angel is kidnapped by Erasers and taken back to the School even though the rest of the flock fights. The Erasers have the opportunity to kill or capture pretty much everyone at a first sweep, but instead they just leave the flock behind. This just happens over and over again--at one point, there are hundreds of Erasers who have them completely surrounded, apparently to provide a snarly backdrop to a warning from another character. It seems that some hidden person or force wants the flock to have to learn to survive in the real world, and is using force and bait to achieve that end, but it was just vague enough that it felt like an excuse rather than a real conspiracy. The Erasers could kill, maim, shatter the wing bones to cut off easy escape, take hostages, cut someone open and force a tracker chip in, or really anything as long as they catch some of the flock on the ground, but they seem to mostly just do a lot of chasing, to the point that they seem like sheepdogs rather than serious threats.

The little details pile up even faster. Max's full chosen name is Maximum Ride, but why don't the others have last names? How on earth are they communicating with hawks well enough to lead them in a focused attack? If they need to eat so much food to keep moving and survive, how have they been affording the sheer amount of food like cereal....while hiding in a mountain cabin with no jobs? Stealing from other cabins and gathering berries would be a stopgap solution at best, but this is never fully explained, and it definitely matters in helping to explain how the kids learned the basics of social interactions in the outside world. This issue ripples; how do the kids know about old TV shows? One of them mentions Tonto, so they have a working knowledge of The Lone Ranger, and they occasionally sprinkle their speech with other references that don't make sense for kids who have supposedly been recluses.

And then the kicker, the big detail that drove me nuts every single time it came up. Fang, one of the oldest, is described as having a fourteen-foot wingspan. These are basically larger hawk wings, with the necessary bones and muscles and sinews. They are big enough to support a growing teenager in flight. And he can hide them under a windbreaker. Everyone in the flock can hide their wings under a standard windbreaker or sweatshirt. Take thirty seconds to imagine the necessary size on these, and then explain how they don't poke out the bottom of the coat, or just shred the fabric with their sheer bulk. I don't care if these people have slightly lighter and smaller bones, those wings are still in proportion to their bodies, which means they are too large to hide under anything that's smaller than a trenchcoat with circus-tent expansion panels. These wings are also apparently unnoticeable to stylists who are mere inches away as they give the flock haircuts and makeovers. And going back to the lighter and smaller bones: how on earth does every member of the flock not have shattered bones? They're tossed around and often beaten throughout the story, but those avian bones are evidently laced with adamantium, because they don't break at any point when it would be logical to do so. 

Everyone in the flock wants to find their parents, and that easily could have been a compelling struggle all around....and it so nearly was. The problem is that Nudge actually finds an address and sees a woman she thinks is her mother. It's worth mentioning that this point that Nudge is the only black member of the flock and that her mother is living in a trailer park; Nudge sees the woman smoking a cigarette and drinking beer at the same time in the middle of the day. The others only hear vague accounts, with the suggestion that mothers died in childbirth or were told that their children were dead early on, and that makes this encounter....kind of tacky. Nudge thinks she would rather have seen her mother baking or gardening, which is a decent look at the way she idealizes a family, but there is an enormous spectrum between domestic goddess and a slapdash reliance on stereotypes about impoverished black people. There's ambiguity later about whether this really was her mother, but this sequence was honestly just tacky. 

Another seemingly small but pervasive issue is this: if your characters are going to swear, let them swear. If you're creative enough with the "he spent two full minutes turning the air blue and suggesting unlikely things about my parentage and a goat" variety of circumlocution, go for it, but "think of this as an occupational hazard, you witch!" is ridiculous. These people just kidnapped, abused, and experimented on a six-year-old. Call this scientist a bitch already. If you can't, call her a sadist, or a soulless freak, or everything that's wrong with humanity, or something else that describes what she's done. Max worries later one about giving Angel a "potty mouth" from all her swearing, but if she says "witch" in such a stressful situation, Angel says "sugar" when she stubs her toe. Swearing's not mandatory, far from it, but trying to make your character edgy with swearing that's manifestly not part of her actual vocabulary is just lazy.

All in all, I enjoyed the premise of Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment but thought that the writing of it matched the pacing; it's fast and fun, but that means that details get lost or buried along the way. Lots of little things get irritating over the course of the book, but Max is a genuinely strong protagonist, without the normal relationship concerns that are currently over-saturating the young adult genre.

Prospects: The series concluded with Nevermore: The Final Maximum Ride Adventure last month and there are rumors of a Maximum Ride movie. It's apparently run into trouble with delays and director shuffling, but it could happen, and I think that the tight pacing would make this a good action-packed movie. Odds are I wouldn't have the patience for the whole rest of the series, but this is a solid beginning.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~For the same feeling of being on the run in a totally different context, try Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood. It's an interesting re-imagining of Robin Hood that focuses on the stress and isolation of living in the woods and standing in opposition to the only local establishment.
~If you're interested in seeing wings done well, trying Sharon Shinn's Archangel; she focuses a lot on the structure of them and the need for things like wide hallways and backless chairs. Wings fundamentally change how you move, and she realizes that with detail. 

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