The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu is a great action-packed sci-fi adventure. With one of the most original concepts I’ve seen out of contemporary science-fiction in years, and the quality of action and combat writing that can only come from a martial artist, gymnast and former stuntman, we join an unlikely hero getting in well over his head. The concept is fantastic and executed wonderfully. Add in Chu’s great dialogue and banter to the spot-on action and you have a book that will keep you reading straight through.
When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.
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…
As soon as I picked up The Lives of Tao I knew I was going to enjoy it. I’m a sucker for a novel concept, and an IT dork suddenly finding himself training to essentially be a secret agent just really tickled me. It’s sort of a latter-day Matrix, but for the ones who weren’t Neo and were just trying to get by. Chu does a great job of keeping the scale small. Roen’s role in the greater scheme of things is more than the aliens want it to be given his inexperience, but still little enough that we have a chance to identify with what he might be feeling as he learns more about what is happening. Roen is actually a very sympathetic character even when he’s being a whiny jerk about having to cut out the fastfood and start running, because we’ve all been there. Heck, I could use a voice in my head making me exercise too. He’s just enough the everyman to make us feel we know where he is, but still rises to the occasion of this situation he finds himself in.
And the situation he finds himself in is pretty action-packed. I mentioned in my opening that Wesley Chu has a lot of first-hand experience with action. He’s a Kung-Fu master, a gymnast, and a stuntman. He knows his action from a practical standpoint as well as a choreographic one. I had the opportunity to attend a panel he was giving at GenCon 2013 on writing ancient and medieval combat, and while his own personal experience was more heavily into Eastern martial arts than European, it was still very clear that he knows of what he speaks. The ease with which he translates that experience into text is very impressive, as well. The scenes pop. He manages to really meld the often unexciting realities of what actual combat looks like with just enough Hollywood pizzaz to make them great to read.
As is usual for me, I also tend to read a lot into worldbuilding from the perspective of my background as a historian (And when I can, as a philosopher) which is another reason why this book was so great. In case you skipped over the blurb up top there, the basic conceit of the book is that millennia ago, a race of aliens crash-landed on Earth in a way that left them trapped here. They have the ability to inhabit the bodies of other species, along for the ride rather than taking them over, but they can communicate freely. So their basic plan, since they have no other way to get back into space, is to just bootstrap human technology up as high and fast as possible until we advance to a point where we can help them rebuild their ships and leave. The aliens have split into two factions over how best to accomplish this task. The Prophus want to encourage peace and advance humanity through scientific advances. The Genjix want to encourage conflict and war as a means to foster even faster technological growth because heck, who cares about the humans in the end anyway?
Given the number of things about our history that we’re still so unclear about, like the various constructions on Earth that we really don’t understand how they were built (The Pyramids, for example) or the number of just massive paradigm shifting “Eureka” moments our scientists and thinkers have had, it’s actually not outstandingly far-fetched to consider that Chu’s idea here might be something that could have happened. After all, if each of the humans were essentially in on it all along and most ended up reaping great benefits in prestige, power and wealth (except for the ones who were burned at the stake), we might never know.
To me, that is the hallmark of great science fiction: an outlandish concept built with just enough reality to really give you something to think about. We need to be able to identify with what’s going on, and while sci-fi has historically given us a vehicle to discuss some very serious things by using the unreality as a smokescreen (female officers on the Enterprise and whatnot) to tell a really compelling and interesting story in science fiction, the window dressing of future worlds and alien species needs to still allow reasonable suspension of disbelief and Chu absolutely nails it.
For a similar style of great identifiable characters and situations with an element of the supernatural or science fictitious (Can I coin that as a phrase?) you should definitely check out books like Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, both of which I’ve read and enjoyed and found a lot to like in the same ways as The Lives of Tao. If you’ve read The Lives of Tao and liked it, be happy. The rest of the trilogy, The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao are already out, and the first book in a new trilogy in the same setting, The Rise of Io is slated for release this year!