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Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment

Style: Average

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Grotesque and disturbing genetic and behavioural experiments on young children with commonly fatal results. Tremendous love and supportiveness between the six children. Max's efforts to make sure she and the others do the right thing. Positive reference to religion. The children's desire to know whether they have parents and who they are. Some thefts by the children in difficult circumstances. Serious violence.

Cover of Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment

Author: James Patterson

Series: Maximum Ride

Publisher: Headline

Published in: 2005

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Contemporary

Setting: USA

Genres:  AdventureMoral IssueSciFiThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Max Ride is the 14-year-old leader of the Flock, six children who had avian DNA grafted onto themselves in the womb and who have wings, tremendous strength, and other talents.
  • Fang and Iggy are boys a few months younger than Max. Fang is strong and silent but very supportive. Iggy is blind (from a failed experiment) but has excellent hearing and is an expert with electronics and pyroclastics.
  • Nudge is an 11-year-old with a non-stop mouth.
  • Angel and Gasman are 6- and 8-year-olds, brother and sister. Angel can read people's thoughts while the Gasman can imitate voices perfectly.
  • Jeb was a father figure to the children but disappeared two years before the story starts, and is presumed dead.

Synopsis:

Max and the Flock, children with wings, have run away from the School, the lab complex where they spent the first part of their lives locked in cages and experimented on. After four years, their hiding place has been discovered and Angel, the youngest, is captured. The others must get her back and find answers to their own questions along the way.

Notes:

Be warned: the subject matter of this book is quite distasteful at times. However, it's not gratuitous or voyeuristic, and in fact represents a warning to advocates of therapeutic cloning that the human beings they create are just that: human beings, and not objects for experimentation. As far as the scientists at the School are concerned, Max and the others are merely the successful survivors of genetic experiments on children in the womb and later. The failures are left to die, sometimes horrifically mutated or deformed. And when Angel is recaptured, all they want to do is run her through vicious and torturous mazes and look forward to dissecting her brain.

Worse still, although the children believe they escaped four years ago, it seems as if that was just another experiment, and the man they thought they trusted, whom they looked on as a father, was betraying them all the time. His continuing pleas that there's a Bigger Picture for which they're all being prepared are almost as disgusting as the more straightforward scares of the monstrous kids kept in cages. He's helped by the Erasers, werewolf-like creatures which represent the only other success story from the School. There's tragedy here, too, because although they appear to be grown men and women, they're only really children whose growth processes have been accelerated and who have been given wolf DNA.

14-year-old Max is our first-person narrator, and she uses the manner and slang of an ordinary teenage girl, so don't expect literary haute cuisine. The plot is lightweight and loosely episodic, if fast-moving, and the story runs the risk of being too insubstantial for its serious subject matter. But it's helped out, as we shall see, by the characters of the children and their interactions. The story is open-ended, obviously setting up for a series, so there are many things we don't understand at the end. There are also one or two minor plot holes and deus ex machina moments but nothing which is of any real importance.

The good news is that the six children who make up the Flock are individuals, although some are more vividly described than others. And they're all fiercely loyal to each other and to their joint ideals. They've been dealt a poor hand in life, and they're doing what they can to get on and make the best of it. Max, the oldest by a few months, is the de facto leader, and feels especially responsible for the younger ones who look up to her. She tries to guard her mouth in their hearing, and is dismayed when Angel, the youngest, coerces a kind woman to buy her an expensive teddy bear in a toy shop. The younger ones, in turn, try to live up to her ideals, and do their best not to give into the self-pity which would have been perfectly understandable. But they're not plaster saints, and at times they're perfectly normal, grizzly little kids.

The children were in the School for as long as they can remember, and they don't know if they were born in test-tubes or from their mother, nor who their parents are. It's something which drives them at several points in the story, the more so when they discover a few hints, and it looks as though some of them were given voluntarily to the lab. While their powers might seem enviable — they can fly they're strong and fast, they have excellent vision — they regard themselves as mutant freaks and would rather have a family. Max has to seek help from a mother and daughter when she is shot, and relishes even this limited experience of family life for the rest of the time. The youngsters' desperation for normal family life seems to sound a warning bell against the ideal held by some that children will flourish no matter where they come from.

There's a surprisingly spiritual edge at a number of points in the story. Obviously, there's the unspoken polemic around test-tube births and cloning, and the contrast between Max's too-brief experience of family and the conditions children are kept in at the School. In addition, though, Max makes a point of saying: “Relief and joy flooded through my body and soul... And yes, I did say soul” (italics in the original). And later, the children take refuge in a Cathedral where, for an entire (short) chapter, they simply glory in its safety... and pray, rather touchingly. I was surprised.

There are a couple of notes of caution. It's not entirely clear where the children get their food or money from, but once or twice in the story they get money by using a lost bankcard, steal campers' food and hotwire a car. There's no suggestion that this is normal, and it's true they're in difficult circumstances but too little is made of it. In addition the levels of violence are quite high: the Flock and Erasers both have enhanced strength and resilience, and there are some wincing moments. As a rule, the younger children are left out of the worst of these, but there are injuries all round. In particular, Max ends up fighting apparently for her life against a vicious Eraser who's been threatening her throughout. In defending herself she brings him down on a rock, apparently breaking his neck.

In summary, this story is an easy ride at a certain level: it has a racy enough plot, interesting and likeable characters, and leads to a sequel. But it raises important issues which should be considered, and doesn't let them go.

Themes:

  • Genetic manipulation
  • Test-tube babies and experimentation
  • The love of family and friends

They had made it in a huge gym-like room in the School's main building. They rang a bell, pushed her forward, and then she had to run as fast as she could to find the exit. Each time the maze was different, the exit in a different place. And if she slowed down, she got an electric shock so strong it scrambled her brain, or red-hot wires under her feet burned her. So, eyes blurry with tears, angel ran forward blindly, taking this turn and that until she finally stumbled out the exit.

Then she would get a sip of water and a five-minute rest while they redid the maze.

Saturday 27th January 2007