People require meaning. Indeed, we so crave meaning that we devote much of the human enterprise to generating it, whether in the form of religion, or politics, or (and especially) fiction. What can fiction tell us? In the case of Wesley Chu’s 2013 sci-fi novel The Lives of Tao, we learn that individual happiness can only be achieved by having a cause. And possibly by mastering a martial art.
The Lives of Tao tells the story of Roen Tan, a schlubby, unhappy, Chicago-based engineer. After a lonely night at a club, and while vomiting out of the door of his car, Roen is unwittingly inducted into a worldwide extraterrestrial war. Humanity is not alone: Quasings, a gaseous alien race, have been stranded on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs. Unable to exist for long in Earth’s atmosphere, Quasings are able to survive by entering a living “host,” be it rodent, chimpanzee, or sad, chubby human. Unfortunately for Tao, the recently-evicted Quasing who takes refuge in Roen, his new host is a mess. But there’s a war on, so Tao gets to work. Extraterrestrial symbiotic buddy dramedy!
As Roen and the reader learn, Quasings have been trapped on earth for millions of years, using animal life as hosts. When the first hominids appeared, Quasings saw their opportunity, and stepped in to direct evolution. One can only imagine the rictus of fear on the face of the first australopithecus to be inhabited by a wise and ancient cloud of sentient gas.
With the development of modern man, the Quasing realized that they now had a being capable of devising ever more advanced technologies, which presented them the (very) long-term possibility of finding a way home. Convinced that conflict drove human technological advancement, Quasings meddled with abandon, fostering discord throughout human history. In the wake of the Black Death, a small group of Quasing, calling themselves Prophus, determined that they should coexist with their human hosts and promote peace. The Prophus oppose the Genjix, those Quasings who believe that humanity is a mere means to their end. Roen is a bit player on a drama the timescale of which he can’t even imagine.
Chu does an admirable job of presenting his scenario to readers without overwhelming them. The Lives of Tao opens with an action-oriented prologue that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces Tao, who is clearly not a familiar life form. Tao’s decision to wait to introduce himself to Roen serves to further ease the reader into the plot: The reader learns about Roen (and his many weaknesses), and Chu uses the opportunity to explain the back story to the reader by positioning it as Tao speaking to his new host. It’s a very clean and clever way to orient the reader.
The book’s structure is its weakest point. The Lives of Tao is an action-oriented story with dashes of humor. It is not comedic: The sobriety of the climax and ending belie that. Still, Chu writes the first third of the book from a comedic viewpoint. The joke is on Roen, to whom Tao serves as drill sergeant and counselor. Readers will enjoy Roen and Tao’s exchanges as the latter harangues the former about getting shape, standing up for himself at his job, and so on. This portion of the novel is more lighthearted. Chu also shares extensive background about the Quasing sojourn on Earth. Readers will want more.
Unfortunately, Chu treads more traditional territory in the remainder of the book, which is mostly action. Finally trained, Roen begins to go on Prophus missions, one of which leads to some soul searching before he returns to the fold. Chu ends The Lives of Tao with an extensive action sequence and neatly positions it for a sequel.
Quibbles about structure aside, Chu poses interesting questions about human agency at both the individual and collective levels. Roen won’t quit the job he hates. His colleague tells him to do something about it, to go to law school. Roen balks. It’s only later, with Tao on board, that Roen finds the willpower necessary to improve his life. He eats right and works out. He stands up to his boss. He asks out his cute coworker. In the book, of course, Tao is an intelligent alien life form giving Roen a kick in the pants. But perhaps Tao is really that part of the mind that tells you to try something different. Chu seems to be saying to the reader that, if you don’t like something, it’s up to you to do something about it. For those of us who aren’t locked into impossible circumstances, there are choices to be made. You can take the safe route, like Roen, or you can change things. It might not be pleasant, it might not be easy, but it’s probably better than suffering in silence. Diagnosing Roen’s unhappiness, Tao tells him, “You are causeless.”
Those existential questions occur at the “species” level, too. What is the human enterprise all about? Is human history really just the story of war punctuated by all-too-brief periods of peace? Is there a common narrative to our history? The Genjix position, that war is necessary for evolution, seems almost to mirror certain theories that humans evolved only to better perpetuate the “virus” of DNA, or the assertions of some neuroscientists that humans lack free will, that we are simply acting out, based on received stimuli, the actions programmed into us.
This is all to say that there is more going on in The Lives of Tao than it would first appear. The Lives of Tao isn’t a “big idea” book. It is light on science-fiction; don’t read it expecting a serious exploration of the implications of this or that science. Chu, a martial artist (and former stuntman!) is firmly focused on telling an action-oriented story. There are guns. There are explosions. Still, The Lives of Tao is far from shallow in its examination of human motivation and agency. Recommended for casual sci-fi readers who enjoy action and a touch of comedy.