The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

Reviewed by Karen Burnham

The Lives of Tao cover

Wesley Chu's debut novel The Lives of Tao is a fun book that will appeal directly to those who enjoy Charles Stross's Laundry novels (2004-). Stross presents us with a secret history/secret present in which government agencies are actively monitoring mathematical and magical activity, trying to stave off a Cthulhu-rising-style apocalypse. Wesley Chu's secret history/secret present involves ethereal, nigh-immortal aliens, Quasings, who can only survive inside human hosts. They make contact with their hosts and can sometimes lead them to lives of greatness—famous figures who acted as hosts for the Quasings include Genghis Khan, Shakespeare, Galileo, and many, many others. Two factions of these aliens, working behind the scenes, have been driving human history and development since our earliest evolution.

Of course, each Quasing is somewhat at the mercy of the host that they occupy. Sometimes human hosts are groomed for years for the role. Some sign up and pass multiple tests in order to gain the honor of being a host. But then there come times when you just have to grab the closest available human, and that's how Tao, the Quasing who once helped Genghis Khan achieve greatness, comes to occupy Roen Tan, IT worker and general schlub. He fills the same role that "Bob Howard" does in Stross's Laundry series—the reader identification character who is snatched up from a comfortable, yet mundane and meaningless high-tech middle class existence into a life of hardship and adventure, whether he wants it or not.

The Lives of Tao is really the origin story of the budding super-duo of Roen and Tao. Chu does some very neat things in crafting this story. For one, he starts with a chapter featuring Tao with Edward, his host before Roen, a well-oiled team who like each other, work well together, and face thriller-style escapades with elan. It is Edward's courageously self-sacrificing death that sets Tao on the path towards Roen. This sets up the conflict between two factions of Quasings (Tao is of the Prophus faction which is barely holding the line against the Genjix) and gives us good momentum to carry us through the Roen-being-a-schlub parts.

Chu has a challenge because Roen is a serious loser as the book begins. That's important because it makes his transformation into a secret agent all the more impressive, but it does mean that he has a whiny geek on his hands as the central character for the first third of the book. We have to get past the "If I'm hearing voices in my head it must mean I'm insane" phase, and the "I'm sorry, you're an immortal alien in my head?" phase, and the "What do you mean I have to start jogging?" phase, and Chu moves us through all that at a brisk clip. This is helped by regularly shunting Roen off stage and slowly revealing parts of Tao's backstory, what he was doing with Genghis Khan, why he now regrets it, what caused the schism between the Prophus and the Genjix, how he founded the discipline of tai chi, etc. This helps keep things interesting as Roen goes through the "but it's too hard to change my life" phase of whining. In this part Tao is essentially a life coach embedded in Roen's head. Roen's journey to kick-assdom takes the greater part of the book. It culminates in a suitably cinematic showdown between some Genjix bad guys which demonstrates that Roen is fully integrated into the super-agent lifestyle, setting up potential sequels—which, if this book finds its way to its target audience, have the potential to do very well.

That's not to say that the book doesn't have its flaws, which for me come in the form of its consistent employment of the male gaze. I'm a geek with a desk job who isn't in as good shape as I want to be and wouldn't mind an immortal alien life coach in my head telling me how to get in shape and filling me in on the secret history of the world. But I'm also a woman, and as such I don't belong in this story as much as I would like to. For instance, Roen's initial physical trainer is a female host named Sonya who is an incredibly kick-ass woman who could probably kill him with her little finger. She is uniformly described by her "hotness," with added gratuitous sun bathing. Thanks to her the book briefly passes the Bechdel test about halfway through, in a scene where she coordinates an operation with another female agent. But that's pretty much it for women talking to each other here.

Roen's girlfriend Jill doesn't improve matters. With Tao's Cyrano-style help, Roen is able to start up a successful relationship for the first time in his life. However, we get absolutely no sense of Jill as a person; she is merely there as a placeholder to demonstrate Roen's increasing maturity and success by winning her. She and Sonya feature prominently in the climatic ending, and I will try not to spoil things too much by saying that they are not the active parties in that fight scene.

Eye-rolling male gaze aside, I really enjoyed this book. Tao's voice is well developed, and there's a lot of genuine humor as he interacts with humans and other Quasings. There's a whole other critique to be written about the "human genius is the result of alien help" trope, which is one I often find questionable, but this is such a light-hearted take on the subject that I didn't find it intrusive or annoying. Chu deftly avoids a few pitfalls associated with that premise, and I appreciated that as well. This is the science fiction equivalent of beach reading, and I imagine that it will find solid success with a broad swath of SF readership.

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Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She edits the Locus Roundtable blog, and she can be emailed at karen.burnham@gmail.com.