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.