Life is full of surprises. One day, you could go to a bar and strike out with meeting anyone interested in you. The next, you could be a host to a gaseous alien life form whose existence predates (human) recorded history. Happens all the time.
Okay, maybe not all the time. But that’s what happens to luckless software developer Roen Tan, in Wesley Chu’s break-out novel The Lives of Tao.
This alien, the novel’s titular character Tao, has lived for centuries and has inhabited several prominent humans including none other than Genghis Khan. Tao is an operative of the Prophus, who fight their Genjix rivals for control of humanity. Forced to form a symbiotic relation with the out of shape developer, Tao has no choice but to convince Roen that, one, he is not crazy. And two, Roen’s life is in danger if he does not join the fight.
The Lives of Tao doesn’t take long to grab you. Chu doesn’t bother with descriptions of Chicago or anywhere else, which helps the reader slide into the witty banter and dialogue with ease. It takes a moment to grasp how Roen and Tan communicate, versus how Roen communicates with everyone else. But once this is established, the mentor-and-student rib-poking is enjoyable and fun to read.
Perhaps 60% of the novel is spent on prodding Roen along, trying to get him to grow up and take responsibility for his lackluster life. We’ve all been there at some point, feeling something like a loser and wanting to turn life around. But the Genjix are after Roen and Tao, and the latter’s inability to leave Roen increases their desperation and reliance upon each other to survive. Along the way Tao enlists the aid of a handful of characters who help him establish himself as a Prophus agent.
The opening of every chapter after a certain point begins with a brief, two paragraph explanation of how these two species become so symbiotically dependent. Tao brings Roen up to speed on the conflict that began the division between the Prophus and the Genjix. Chu intriguingly twists history, associating various events through time with one faction or the other. Tao insinuates that most of human advancement was due to war, driving two nations against one another and forcing innovation in order to survive. Or so the Genjix claim. Tao and the Prophus have a differing vision, believing that cooperation and peace are the preferable method to drive innovation and someday return to their home planet.
The novel reaches an impressive climax, creating a situation that both satisfies as it disheartens. Obviously I will not spoil it for our readers, but it’s a twist unique to the world that Chu has concocted. Although that’s not to say there isn’t a further twist at the very end.
In some ways, The Lives of Tao has been done before. It’s a feel-good tale starring an alien version of Harvey. But it’s the fact that Chu has executed it so well; entertaining and sometimes enlightening, creating these great characters who have a natural chemistry and dynamic with one another. With a rewarding conclusion, The Lives of Tao is a highly recommended read from Angry Robot Books.