Book Review: The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu
Title: The Lives of Tao
Author: Wesley Chu
Publisher: Angry Robot Books; April 30, 2013
Length: 464 pages
Price: $7.99 US/ $8.99 CAN
Tao is a Quasing, one of a race of alien life forms from the planet Quasar whose ship broke up in Earth’s atmosphere millennia ago, stranding its inhabitants on a strange new world completely inhospitable to their gaseous forms. To survive, the Quasing discovered, they must become parasitic, inhabiting the bodies of the native life forms. Throughout prehistory, they inhabited dinosaurs and Neanderthals, until humans showed promise of the ability to evolve in a manner that might someday allow the Quasing to return to their home.
For the last five hundred years, the Quasing have been at war with themselves, split into two factions: the Genjix, who follow the original Quasing idea that humans evolve technologically faster when in a state of conflict, and the Prophus, a splinter sect who has come to appreciate humankind and who believe the same technological advances might be made through peaceful means.
Roen Tan is an IT technician living in Chicago. He spends his days plopped in front of a computer, whiling away the hours at a job he hates. His nights are spent shoving his face full of pizza and gaming or, on occasion, being talked into going to a nightclub and drinking himself into lonely regret. But after one such night, Roen finds he is no longer alone in his own head, and he is given the opportunity to live a life he’s only dreamed about.
Training to be a secret agent isn’t easy for anyone. But when you start out as an overweight, middle-aged slob, well … things are bound to get interesting.
Wesley Chu is an Associate Vice President at a bank by day, and a writer and martial artist by night. As a writer, he contributes to the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. With past work as an actor and stunt man as well, Chu has a background ripe for writing fun, action-packed stories, and his debut novel, The Lives of Tao, is just that.
The Lives of Tao is a blend of sci-fi and spy as we rarely see it. From the very first pages, the reader is dumped right into the middle of the story of the Quasing civil war, with quick, fluid action scenes that continue throughout the book. As the tension ebbs and flows along, so too does the narrative. Chu evades a lot of detail work, preferring to keep the plot moving and twisting along by pulling the reader from one event or action scene to the next, giving the story a good sense of motion and progress throughout.
“After the events at the Chest of the Menagerie, I do not have much to tell that could show you any insight as to who I am. Because from that point on, it has been nothing but mindless war…”
As the current situation races ahead at what is often a break-neck pace, each chapter begins with Tao telling Roen the history of the Quasing on Earth.
“We used to be two sides playing chess with humanity’s evolution as the prize. Now, we play simply to defeat the other side. In a way, the Prophus fell right into the Genjix’s hands.”
The Quasing have done a lot to influence human evolution, for good and for ill, and there are a lot of historical Easter eggs scattered throughout the story, adding to the fun and novelty of it. Tao himself has inhabited Genghis Khan, and other Quasing have had hosts as important to mankind as Voltaire, Shakespeare, Churchill, even Peter the Apostle. At the same time, Chu’s characters are rather simple, but in a good way. Like classic Bond characters, Chu fleshes out the stereotype for the reader to start with, adding small details along the way to flesh them in a bit, but never too much. This story is all about the action.
There are a few minor redundancies and unwieldy sentences throughout the book, but nothing out of the ordinary for a debut novel, and nothing that really upsets the story for more than a moment. All in all, Chu’s writing is strong, and his ability to write tragic, heart-rending scenes into such a fun, easy story is proof that he’s found his calling as a writer.
The Lives of Tao has some good take-away lessons for readers, as well. As comic as Tao’s training of Roen can be, it also contains inspirational advice that is bound to make readers reflect on their own lives. There is much about being the person you want to be and not making excuses to let yourself fail. Much as the practice of Tao is The Way of life, the character of Tao shows Roen the way to live fully. And isn’t that something we could all use a little help with?