There was this show, Chuck, on NBC back in the day. It began as the story of a computer technician at a “Buy More” who receives an email from a former college roommate. The email uploads the Intersect, a CIA/NSA supercomputer, into his brain. So the CIA and NSA send two agents, Sarah Walker and John Casey, to be Chuck’s handlers, to watch over him and keep him safe until the new Intersect is built and Chuck can be “decommissioned.” But if Chuck isn’t prepared for life as a spy, Sarah and Casey are equally unprepared for the crazy world of the Buy More. And as the show progresses, all the characters change. Chuck becomes less the nerdy and awkward “loser” type character—but even as he gets new Intersect abilities, he never quite loses a certain goofy quality. He and Sarah fall in love, as you do on these kinds of shows, and they rescue each other all the time. It’s just such a great show, because the writers take the time to develop the characters along a long, meandering, but totally believable arc.
The Lives of Tao reminds me of Chuck. Roen Tan is a computer programmer in a dead-end job—Office Space, if you’ve seen it, but instead of the hypnosis, confidence comes in the form of a gaseous alien who takes refuge in Roen’s body. Tao is a Quasing, and his people crash-landed on Earth millions of years ago. Unable to survive in our planet’s frigid atmosphere, they inhabit living bodies and have shepherded humanity throughout its entire existence, advising people telepathically, hoping to propel us to a point where we can help them return home.
Roen is drafted into this conspiracy—Tao has no choice but take Roen as a host, because he’s on the run from the other faction of the Quasing. So no one asks Roen if he wants his entire life to change. And, frankly, Tao is not enthusiastic about taking on a “fixer-upper” as his next host, as he puts it.
So we have a dynamic very similar to the one in Chuck: a loser character joins a secret organization carrying a lot of knowledge in his head but little enough experience or physical training. It’s up to Tao and a few supporting characters to train Roen literally into shape. What could have been boring gets spiced up by the way Roen interacts with Tao, Sonja, Antonio, and the others. As with Chuck, Roen’s development is gradual but noticeable. By the end of the book he is just becoming competent—not unbelievably badass, but probably better than he ever thought he might be at something like this. I give Chu a lot of credit, because most of the time writers don’t put much effort into making the “zero to hero” transformation very believable; they just hope the audience will put up with it for the awesomeness factor.
Chu has no choice to make the transformation believable, of course. The Lives of Tao is all about the measure of a person. Tao recounts snippets of his past lives to Roen and the audience, explaining his mistakes with Genghis Khan and the founder of the Ming Dynasty and an Italian priest. Nature versus nurture runs as a common motif throughout these stories, culminating in Roen’s transformation. It’s not the fact that Roen has access to an alien being’s knowledge and assistance that matters, really—it’s Roen’s discipline and determination (both of which are enforced, somewhat, by Tao) that allow him to achieve so much.
Chu deliberately presents Roen as somewhat unsympathetic at first—Tao in particular is very critical of Roen’s attitude, and this perspective infects the narration. This innoculates the reader against the intensive training regime that Tao and the other Prophus inflict upon Roen: we are allies against him, deaf to his misery, because we know he’ll be better off for it. And by the end, when Roen starts showing more confidence in matters like dating Jill, it’s actually very rewarding.
As Tao fills Roen (and the reader) in on the backstory of the Prophus versus Genjix factions, Roen goes on a series of escalating missions. That is, missions with stakes that escalate, not missions that require Roen to scale things. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.
I don’t visualize when I read, so when I say something is “cinematic,” I mean I can imagine movies like this book working for me. The Lives of Tao certainly feels like it could work as a science-fiction action movie. The whole arc of training is Act I, with Roen’s minor missions as Act II, followed by the Decennial as Act III leading into the climactic assault on the evil fortress. Did I see the ending coming? Like many action movies, yes I did. But it was still fabulous.
Although the whole “Holy One” rhetoric that the Genjix foist on their hosts is over the top, for the most part Chu portrays the two Quasing factions as different rather than good versus evil. It’s easy for us to empathize with the Prophus and support them, because they seem to be the ones who want to keep humanity largely intact and out of major conflicts. But Chu shows us that the Prophus are also responsible for problems—polio in the States, anyone?—and reminds us that, ultimately, they don’t care as much about human affairs or happiness as they do about getting home. They are, in short, alien; while individual Quasing like Tao or Baji might feel somewhat human because of the time they have spent inhabiting humans, the Prophus and Genjix collectively are frighteningly alien in their aims and plans.
As far as debut novels go, this is impressive. I was sceptical when I started. I was worried that the story would drag, that there would be too much back-and-forth between Tao and Roen. But it never really gets in the way, and Chu balances the need for characters to remark on changes and the need merely to show those changes obliquely to the reader. This grasp of subtlety, combined with a flair for the larger-than-life action sequences, makes for a great read.