Monthly Archives: June 2013

Thoughts on Maximum Ride: MAX

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I want to start by talking about the rule of cool and how it relates to Maximum Ride.

As is probably evident by the name, the rule of cool is a writing “concept,” so to speak (I don’t think that’s the right term for it, but whatever the right term might be I don’t know), where elements of a story from setting to plot to characters are created from a perspective of “this would be cool.” This often creates a somewhat illogical writing, where something happens just because it’s cool, even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The very first instance of the rule of cool in Maximum Ride is the bird kids themselves. They have wings–cool! I can’t say for certain what JPatterson’s intent was with the wings, but the way he treats the bird kids in the narrative–by focusing on how great it is to have wings, by not exploring the realistic ramifications of it, by barely trying to explain how it works–makes it clear that it’s more rule of cool than not.

Now, the rule of cool isn’t inherently a bad thing. It often creates a weaker story by invading an otherwise sound story element, but cool things aren’t bad, or they wouldn’t be cool. However, the rule of cool can, like I said, weaken a story when used wrong. I would use a simple system for judging if it works or not, by asking three questions: 1) how cool is it? 2) how much sense does it make within the narrative? 3) how seriously does the story take itself? If a story is created to have interesting spectacle, it’s easier to not care about the rule of cool’s usage. If the thing in question is really cool, it might not need to make as much sense within the narrative.

Previously, I didn’t particularly apply these questions to the books and chose to ruthlessly critique them from the standpoint of logic and sense. I don’t think JPatterson was really trying to write a logical, sense-making series, though, so while I disagree with that approach it’s not as useful to critique his work on those grounds. (Though I’ll probably continue critiquing such things in the sporks for entertainment value. In-depth criticisms of plot points are harder to do when relevant chapters are spread across spork parts.)

Now, how does the rule of cool relate to MAX? Well, MAX is by most means much more written by the rule of cool than previous books–The Final Warning was dominated with environmental themes that prevented much room for rule of cool or non-rule of cool writing, and the first three books, I think, were written as a lighthearted adventure with an emotional core. (Not that there wasn’t any rule of cool stuff, but it was a lot more “traipsing around Europe” in terms of ridiculous plot elements than “wow that made no sense but it was meant to be cool!”)

MAX eases off on the environmental stuff, but also shifts away from the emotional core. It’s actually rather difficult to figure out where JPatterson was going with the book: the kidnapping of Max’s mom should have set it up as a book that would have lots of pensive moments, reflecting on Max’s journey and exploring how Max relates to humanity and a “normal life.” The underwater theme would help with that, as the flock–well, fly, and so that aspect is downplayed by the setting.

Instead, like I said, JPatterson drops a lot of the emotional stuff. There’s still introspection and such, but it’s generally less important and shorter than in the first three books. So already you have a problem: JPatterson created a premise that was suited to one thing, then did another thing. I think this is due to poor planning and a lack of editing myself, and it creates a rather disconnected end product.

But since JPatterson decided to go in the rule of cool direction, I will critique the book as such. So we come back to those three questions. JPatterson clearly isn’t trying to write a very serious book, so I think that automatically makes the rule of cool more predisposed to be okay. This means the question of “how cool is this?” is more relevant, as well as “how well is it written?”–something cool is less cool if it’s written about boringly. Similarly, if you’re going to create a cool action scene, it had better be written with tension and drama.

So with all that setup… it’s time to talk about just how dumb MAX is. Let’s start with “how cool is this?” And let me tell you, it’s not very cool.

JPatterson has made sure that there have always been disposable hordes of enemies for his protagonists to fight, and I think MAX’s ones are the worst. Whereas the erasers and flyboys of the first three books were dumb, and the robots of The Final Warning were boring, JPatterson somehow created a less interesting mook: the M-Geeks. (Or “thingies”, as I called them during the spork, as M-Geek is a ridiculous name.) They’re exceedingly simple: robots that look like humans. The way in which they’re bad is only slightly more complicated. I don’t doubt that JPatterson’s thought process behind creating them was to create human-like enemies that wouldn’t be gory to destroy. In doing this, however, he ended up with the worst of both worlds: the boring visual element of humans, but without the interest of human minds–instead, they’re mindless drones, there to be torn apart and nothing else.

This would work well if there was spectacle involved in their destruction, but that’s where “how well is this written?” comes into play. And, well, JPatterson still can’t write an action scene. Not only is his prose too boring and plain to convey any tension or excitement, but he barely even tries: I think the longest action scene was maybe two pages. And how he writes them is usually more or less just “I did this, they did this, that happened, more fighting, then I won.” Booooring.

Next, there are the powers that the flock obtain. These are the most obvious example of rule of cool in the series, and also the worst: they blatantly defy the series’ internal logic, but are only mildly interesting and are barely even utilized. Remember how Nudge could touch objects and learn their history? Never mentioned in MAX. Or her magnetism. Slightly more important are Angel’s underwater breathing and communication with aquatic animals, which is made use of many times in the book. They’re actually a sort of okay usage of rule of cool: they’re used to open up important plot avenues that would otherwise be closed, and while they aren’t utilized to be particularly interesting, the first point is more important here.

Unfortunately, while Angel’s powers aren’t a terrible example of rule of cool, the plot they enable is. The krelp (krelp, kelp, ha ha), as they’re called, are giant mutated fish who are strangely ineffectual at ramming and killing things, and have intelligence. They are largely unimportant until the climax, where they use oxygen-filled ooze to carry Max to safety. That’s pretty much the only use for Angel’s underwater breathing and telepathy.

So, you know. Less cool and more ridiculous. And more plot devices than anything, too–all they do that couldn’t be done by other, more logical (as in, even with them in the book there would be better means of performing whatever task is in question) means is inform Max where her mom is.

Shifting away from the rule of cool, since I’ve said most all of what there is to be said about it, let’s talk about the characters and what JPatterson does with them. Or doesn’t do with them, as is more accurate. Remember back in book two, when Iggy got a viewpoint scene and had a few other scenes that gave him a bit more depth? All of that got abandoned by book three, so I don’t hold it against you if you don’t remember. JPatterson seems to have forgotten himself, as Iggy is mostly just there in MAX, and he’s still the sarcastic, slightly more mature version of Gazzy. At least his blindness isn’t brought up every time he’s mentioned as it was in some of the previous books. Gazzy gets similar treatment: he’s really just there as a plot device, who magically stops the bad guys at the right time using his bizarre knowledge of explosives.

The other four members of the flock (excluding Total) get more to work with. First is Nudge, who defies Max’s wishes and decides to go to school. This was compelling drama: Max is deadset on living her life one way, and wants the flock to follow with her, but Nudge wants a normal life and wants to be done with being on the run. While JPatterson doesn’t put enough effort into his writing for this to be handled greatly, it’s easily the most interesting and well-done part of the book.

And then Nudge decides to follow after the flock and the plotline is forgotten. Yay.

Angel is… really weird in this book. JPatterson departs from both the cutesy six-year-old stuff and the morally messed-up kid stuff, instead making Angel into an authority-defying, aloof character who spends most of the book cryptically foreshadowing the fact that Max ends up with gills. For all the screentime she gets, she’s not developed and her actions never really make sense.

The relationship between Max and Fang is in the forefront of the character stuff in this book, though. I mostly didn’t bother covering it in the spork because gag, so here’s a recap: Max likes Fang. Fang’s actions implies that he likes Brigid. Max really doesn’t like this. In the end, Fang evidently was never involved with Brigid because he kisses Max and that’s basically the end of it. It’s a boring, unnecessary plotline, that could have been handled much better. For instance: Fang’s character involves him being somewhat uncommunicative and distant. Max’s character involves a certain amount of emotional attachment, wanting to hide from feelings she doesn’t understand.

So, this could have been an interesting plotline: Max likes Fang, but isn’t sure how to feel about this. She’s also afraid that Fang doesn’t feel the same way, so she starts sort of hinting things to Fang. Fang doesn’t respond to this because that’s not what he does, so this frustrates Max and leaves her uncertain of their standing. In the end, Max overcomes her issues and is frank with Fang.

That’s not particularly original, but it has compelling internal conflict and character interaction. And JPatterson almost did it, but ultimately, Max’s jealousy of Brigid dominated the plotline and made it into a “waaah jealousy” story instead of anything else.

And then there’s Total, but you already know my thoughts on him. He’s just a device JPatterson created to spout dumb jokes and pop culture references. I guess he thought a talking dog was a better spout for those than the flock.

So I think I’ve pretty much covered everything but the general inanity of the plot–but that’s covered pretty thoroughly in the spork. So I’m done here! MAX was easily the worst book in the series, and it led to some serious burnout on my part, but I think taking a step back and thinking about the books in a more deconstructive way did me some good. There are good ideas and elements at play in these books, but JPatterson squanders them at every turn–and I think that’s where he truly fails. The bizarre, logic-defying plot developments are easy to latch onto as the reason for why the books are bad, but a strong core could make those issues largely irrelevant. JPatterson doesn’t do that, however, resulting in books that are lazy in every way.

Expect the first spork part of FANG up Wednesday.

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Flash Fiction–Like a Penny

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It’s been a while since I last posted any prose writing, so I thought I’d share a flash fiction story. Like the last story I posted, this one was written for the NPR three minute fiction contest. The writing prompt this time was:

Write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.

My story wasn’t chosen, so I get to post it here.

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Like a Penny

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By Michael Vest

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I found happiness on the sidewalk, just laying there. So I picked it up.

It felt light in my hands, little more than the weight of a coin, or a key, and I was shocked to see how plain it looked, how unadorned.

My first reaction was to glance around, expecting at once to see a figure rushing towards me, a look of relief tinged with trepidation and concern apparent on their features, one eager hand outstretched to reclaim their erstwhile property. I saw no such figure, however, and my puzzlement grew. Who could have lost such a precious thing and not at once felt its absence, burning like a hole in their chest, more urgent and pressing than any other concern? And its loss must have surely been an accident, for what sort of person would discard such a thing willingly? And so casually, too… casting it away like a cigarette butt onto the street…

Even as my mind raced through its imaginations I could feel the warmth radiating out from the object, through my open, cupping hands, up my arms and then out into my chest. When it reached my heart I felt a little thrill of joy and closed my eyes at once as the world grew dizzy. When I opened them again, my hands had closed around the object.

I looked around once more, but still the sparse pedestrians ambled by, heedless both of me and the thing a held.

A measure of reason returned to me, and I began to consider what course of action I ought take. While my hands, it seemed, had already cast their vote, a voice in my head chastised them for their greed. This object, however lovely, however good, did not belong to me. And yet… how to find its owner? How to discern whose claim (and already I guessed there would be many) was genuine? Should I tack posters along mainstreet? Inside coffee shops?

Or, now the thought came to me, should I surrender my find to the authorities, trusting the police (or whomever’s jurisdiction in which this matter lay) to seek out the rightful owner and return to them their own.

All these options and more occurred to me, each with its own merit and flaw. But none drew me, for no matter how long I thought, or how loud my conscience protested, I could not escape one simple fact: I did not want to return it.

My fingers played and idle game with the thing as my mind wove through its guilty web. Why shouldn’t I keep it? It seemed obvious now its owner did not miss it, or they would have come back. Had I lost it I would surely have given in to hysteria by then, retracing my steps with a frantic speed, babbling and shouting all the while at my loss. Even if I could, somehow, track down its former owner, did they deserve it back, having so easily misplaced it?

And anyway, what of my needs? Why shouldn’t I claim it for my own—I, who hadn’t owned the like since… how long had it even been? Long enough that I could not recall, and I was far from old.

Slowly, carefully, I slipped the thing into my pocket. I would keep it; Its owner had abandoned it like a fallen penny, but I would treasure it as a fortune.

Like a Penny–copyright © 2013 by Michael Vest

~NekoShogun

Weekly Haiku 16

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Yep, posting on time still feels weird…

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Milk

You know what’s real weird?

We steal milk from effing cows!

Whose idea was that?

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Writing

All stress deserts me

When at last I sit to write;

Deep sigh, lifted weight.

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The Words

There are words, I know,

To hold this moment captured;

Now but to find them…

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Moon Shadows

What eerie, midnight gloom

Transfixed in moon-cast shadows;

What ill lurks within…

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The Night

Creatures of the night,

Wander now this empty world

Lit by silver glow.

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~NekoShogun

Weekly Haiku 15

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Well, I only almost forgot to post this week… argh…

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Rain

The torrent shrouds me;

All around the world is mist,

Obscured by cool rain.

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Time

Where has the day gone?

So many things left undone,

So much time wasted…

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Tomato

Fallen tomato;

Half consumed by worm and rot,

Now food for the soil.

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Poetry

Poetry’s nature;

A truth, distilled and captured

In a few short lines.

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The Future

Why fear the future?

Why fixate on things unknown…

Blink, and the day’s gone.

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Well, that ended on a downer…

~NekoShogun

EmotedLlama’s Art Post

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I know, an art post from me? Weird! And especially since I haven’t posted at all lately. Well, let me explain. I’ve been feeling pretty burned out on Maximum Ride lately–MAX doubled down so furiously on everything that’s wrong with the series, and I felt like I stopped having new things to say about JPatterson’s writing. Also reading the books made me extremely frustrated. So I think I’m going to take a few weeks, recharge, then come back and write up a “thoughts on” post for MAX and continue sporking the series. In the meantime, I’m writing a let’s play of Animal Crossing: New Leaf over on a forum, and may make some more general posts here.

Anyway: art! These were all done in art class, so they’re not necessarily an indication of my “real” skill, but eh.

Captain Marvel

This is fanart of the comics character Carol Danvers, under the name Captain Marvel. I’ve been reading the current Captain Marvel run through Marvel’s digital comics service, and I’d greatly recommend it.

HatGuy

This is a profile image of a guy with a cool hat. I think he’s from South America. Ignore the hexagon thing–I tried to draw an eye there before realizing it was not where an eye should go.

River

This is a painting of a river.

People

And this is a sketch of three faceless, handless, and footless people that took my an hour and a half to draw. Okay, so the one guy’s got a hand holding a grenade, but you get the point.

Weekly Haiku 14

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Rebel Martyrs

No silence for us;

Raise your angry voices loud

For all who’ve perished.

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Change

Be the change you want,

But do not wait to see it;

Speak out for justice.

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Drizzle

The sky clouds again;

A gentle rain dampens all

and tickles my skin.

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Great Plains

Endless, rolling plains;

How many lives to purchase

these mellow acres?

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Haiku

Stop me if you think

This isn’t in the spirit

Of proper haiku.

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Stardust

We gaze up at space

And see ourselves reflected;

We are all stardust.

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~NekoShogun