That SF is becoming less anglocentric is an exciting and much-welcomed novelty, and I’m not talking here (just) about language, but also culture and tropes. It often results in a fascinating and compelling mix of different worlds and traditions, like in the case of Wesley Chu, a Taiwan-born and American-raised writer and one of the best discoveries (for me) of 2013. His The Lives of Tao, the first instalment of the Series of Tao, about an alien form that lives on Earth, is a story you won’t easily forget.
The best pitch has been given, Twitter-style, by the author himself on a post appeared on Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds: “Fat loser meets snarky alien. Gets in shape. Fights war over control of humanity’s evolution. Gets a girlfriend. Not in order of importance.” After reading this, I couldn’t avoid getting the book straight away. When you laugh even before having actually started, you know you’re going to enjoy it.
The summary on the back-cover gives you more descriptive and informative hints (it uses also more words) about what’s going on. “When out-of-shape IT technician Roen Tan woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it. He wasn’t. 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.
Interesting, isn’t it? But wait, it gets much better, because Tao is not alone there, and it’s actually fighting against a competing species similar to its own. Its adversaries try to kill Tao in all its “human” incarnations, waiting for the moment it is outside a host and can’t properly defend itself. The mechanics of the transfer (the “in-body, out-body” of Tao-species organisms) reminds me of the movie Fallen (1998, which I definitively recommend if you haven’t seen it yet. Denzel Washington is amazing). But here, instead of the demon Azazel, you have Tao, who is the funniest and most entertaining alien you can meet in these days.
The Lives of Tao can be considered a good, innovative example of a techno/sci-fi thriller. The protagonist Tao is somehow in between a ninja and a trained assassin like Takeshi Kovacs of Altered Carbon, even though less dark and more ironic. The dialogues between Tao and its host Roen are moving at some moments, exhilarating in others and alway entertaining. But this is also the story of a training, and the physical – and mental – journey that leads an overweight, introverted geek to become the perfect special agent. As somebody that regularly reads military SF and real memories of SAS/Delta Force operatives, I can say it sounds credible enough. And close combat scenes too, among the best I have ever read. Being Wesley Chu a martial artist himself, that’s not a surprise (but it’s pleasant nonetheless).
Anything I didn’t like in this book? Not really. Some people have mentioned time jumps in the story as one of the difficulties to follow, and I do concur to a certain extent. But I have to say it had not constituted a main issue for me. Dialogues and action got all my attention, more than plot coherence and overall consistency.
A final curiosity. The species name of the bad guys in the book is Genjix. The most famous Japanese novel is the Heian Period’s classic Genji Monogatari (源氏物語), the Tale of (Prince) Genji. I am not sure there’s any intended reference here by the author (I would be curious to ask him this question, among others), but I found it amusing.
In short, I have loved this book, and I can’t wait to read the sequel. It looks like I was not alone. The Lives of Tao earned Wesley a Young Adult Library Services Association Alex Award and a Science Fiction Goodreads Choice Award Finalist slot. Also, the author was shortlisted just last year for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award (wow). For more on Wesley Chu and the Tao Series, see this link on Angry Robot, or on the author’s website.
(Note: Where I discovered this book, it had already been archived on Netgalley, so I bought it on Amazon Kindle.)