Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2013
Series: Book 1 of Tao
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

The Book:

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen Tan woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…”

The Lives of Tao is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and the sequel, The Deaths of Tao, was published in October of the same year.

My Thoughts:

The Lives of Tao is basically a male power fantasy. Roen Tan is below average in many ways, and doesn’t seem to have any significant skills or talents.  However, his lacks make him a very blank slate for his new resident alien to rework into an action hero.  Roen is overweight, but the alien Tao soon pushes him to get his body into perfect shape.  Roen has no hand-eye coordination or spatial skills, but it’s Tao’s mission to get Roen prepared for hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, and various espionage activities.  Roen is socially awkward and lonely, but with Tao’s guidance, he becomes suave with the ladies.  Roen has to fight to protect the human race, and most especially, the beautiful women that fall for him.  Roen Tan’s zero-to-hero tale does make for a pretty fun ride, but it seems to carry a strong element of wish fulfillment.     

On the other hand, what seems like the point of Roen’s story is undercut by the irrelevance of human beings in this fictional world.  This is a world where just about every significant historical event or development (including the evolution of the human race) has been inspired or carried out by the aliens who live within human beings. This seems to me to reduce human beings to being passive tools in the history of their own species, a history that is completely orchestrated by squabbling aliens. 

Roen, whose life is completely commandeered by aliens, is a small-scale example of this. It seemed odd to me that the aliens didn’t take Roen on as an IT technician, since it seems that the single computer scientist in the entire Prophus organization is out of action at his time of recruitment.  The fact that they train him for combat and espionage (Tao’s specialty) instead of computer science (supposedly Roen’s specialty) really drives home the irrelevance of Roen’s pre-alien life.  In short, Roen does not matter as an individual; he is only important due to the fact that he is Tao’s current host.  This shows up again and again, as humans on both sides of the conflict devalue their own lives and desires in favor of the aliens’.  This seems really weird for a wish-fulfillment story—while Roen does grow from an ordinary guy into a super-spy, he also becomes a passive alien tool.

The story moves along at a nice clip, with a fair amount of action-movie-style violence.  The bantering between Roen, Tao and the others could be pretty funny at times, though Tao was not altogether convincing as a wise, ancient being.  The writing was pretty plain, and it had occasional awkward phrases, sentences, or word repetition.  The ending was actually pretty surprising, but I’m not sure I’m happy with how the ‘boss fight’ was resolved.  The conclusion ties up the story of The Lives of Tao, while giving a clear direction for the sequel.  In the end, I don’t think I’m really the target audience for The Lives of Tao, but it was still a fairly enjoyable light read, despite my complaints.

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Lives of Tao is a light sci-fi story of a particular kind of male wish-fulfillment, featuring a below-average guy, Roen, who is possessed by an alien.  The alien prompts Roen to get in shape, learn combat and espionage skills, and to improve his game with the ladies.  On the other hand, Roen is also being trained to be a tool to be used by the aliens in their centuries-long war.  The writing is plain, but the story moves along quickly, with lots of action and a fair amount of humor.  I had a few issues with the story, and in the end, I don’t think I’m the target audience. It’s still a pretty fun, undemanding read, and I think I can see why others have enjoyed it.

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