When out-of-shape IT technician Roen Tan woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.
Wesley Chu’s debut novel follows tubby everyman Roen Tan on his quest to become something more than a single, overweight, low-level code monkey. What’s special about this story is that Tan’s evolution isn’t voluntary. He may end up saving the world, but he’ll have to be dragged into it. You see, there are these aliens, and they’re using our bodies as vessels to carry them around while they engage in a civil war…
The Lives of Tao is, on its surface, a fast-paced, entertaining, sci-fi adventure. It’s a quick read, runs straight towards its goals, and ends with a satisfying conclusion. If you want something to read on a plane or settle into over the weekend, this is the book you want to pick up. But like most great stories, there’s a little more going on under the surface.
To begin with, I love that Chu takes the time to turn his main character into a hero, instead of beginning with one fully formed. Tan hates his life but like most of us, isn’t really planning to change. It takes a random and irreversible act to shake up Tan’s life. When he finds himself playing host to Tao, an ageless, bodiless, alien, his only choices are to spend the rest of his existence trying to ignore Tao’s nagging, or shape up. The world as he knows it falls out from under him; without that, Tan would probably have kept complaining but never actually changed.
Becoming a secret agent, James Bond style, takes time, and we get to see the training montage play out over the first few chapters of the book. This isn’t Harry Potter, born with all of his parent’s powers and the support of his entire community behind him. He’s not Bruce Wayne either, with an unlimited budget and decades of martial arts teachers. The only thing that Tan has is a voice in his head. Everything else is going to take training.
Chu doesn’t invent an alternate past. He deftly combines the aliens’s political intrigue with our own world history, and gives an alternate motivation for real events. Reading Tao’s narrative is like getting a sneak peak into a history textbook you never knew existed.
I also like the idea of the aliens themselves. They’re amorphous, non-human essences that can’t survive in our atmosphere but otherwise live indefinitely. There’s a built-in, logical reason why they have to care about us, and that makes the plot move forward organically. It never feels stiff or awkward—the characters are doing what they need to do in order to get through this situation.
There’s just enough reveal in the story that we’re left wanting to know more. Why would non-physical aliens develop a binary gender? Are they just borrowing ours? When Tao rattles off his list of previous hosts, they’re all male. What happens when a “male” alien inhabits a woman’s body?
The only place where the book stumbles is in its treatment of women. There are female characters in the book, and to give Chu credit none of them are particularly weak. They are, however, all there to serve the male-driven plot. We see the expected archetypes: the widow who doesn’t know how to go on without her husband, the love interest waiting for the hero to make his move, and the tough girl who has to keep emotionally distant because of the job. The few times that two female characters talk to each other, it’s about Tan.
However, this is the first book in a series, and there’s room to grow. The whole point of the story is one man’s transformation, which is necessarily aided by those women. This isn’t a look at real life, or even Roen’s whole life—it’s the story of the moment that he became something more than he was. And he needs help to get there.
I can’t wait to read what happens next.