The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013) is playing in the sandbox of male fantasy wish-fulfillment. From the earliest days of the comics, boys have been presented with heroes who suddenly discover they’re not the usual downtrodden losers, endlessly condemned to slave at the chalk face as bored students before transitioning seamlessly into unemployment or the miseries of exploited slave labour. At a stroke they find they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, fight crime as a caped crusader, and avoid acne. It always was a seductive dream. Then along came the anime series which showed us that the only requirement for being able to win in competition or battle was self-belief — the power of your will was translated into the strength of your Pokemon or BattleBot (sorry that’s real world fighting with geeks using physical robotic avatars but the idea’s the same). Some of these stories are painfully exploitative rather than inspirational, i.e. they exist to sell the games, the cards and other tied-in product lines rather than to provide practical guidance on how to mitigate the pain of everyday existence in our current reality. People cannot suddenly transform their lives by their own efforts. They either start with natural abilities or they have guidance on how to make the best of what they have. Only a tiny percentage of the young become major performers in their chosen field of activity.
Because comics are strongly gender biased, those aimed at young males naturally cater to the fantasies of their target audience. That means all the girls are mere ciphers who fit the prevailing male stereotypes. They must be stunningly attractive and, at first, cluster around the confident but brainless hunks already in the scene. But when our protagonist’s superpowers emerge, he becomes the babe magnet as a fan club forms for the masked or thinly disguised alter ego who now bestrides the neighbourhood doing good. So our hero gets to do cool stuff in physical terms and becomes the most sexually attractive person on the planet with the pick of all the most attractive women he sees. You can’t have a fantasy better designed to sink its hooks into young males.
So the point of this story is to find a man who could not be farther from the hero stereotype. Meet Roen Tan. Naturally, he was bullied at school and has grown up overweight and with a level of self-esteem one point above zero. He’s what the IT trade would laughingly call a code monkey and he’s pathetically grateful to be bullied by his line manager into working an insane number of hours for very little money. This provides him with enough cash to drink himself silly in inappropriate clubs, not picking up girls or having any fun (other than the consumption of more pizzas which add to his girth). So you can imagine his surprise one morning when he wakes up on the floor of his shared apartment. Usually, he manages to make it to the bed before he passes out. What he fails to realise is that he’s now become the host for an alien who can control his body while he’s asleep. OK so this is not the most original of science fiction tropes. The alien is one of a group who crashed on Earth several million years ago and all they want to do is get back home (thank the powers above it’s not an alien invasion story). Except they have to wait until humans have developed a level of technology that will make return possible (ignoring the passage of time and the fact their return might not be entirely successful as things will have changed back home while they were away). Originally all our aliens were singing from the same hymn book but, as time passed, a disagreement arose as how best to push our evolution. One group was all for using conflict and wars to drive development. The other wanted to be more patient and encourage curiosity and creativity. When they could not agree, they broke into armed camps and have been fighting each other using humans as their hosts ever since. Yes, they provoked all the more recent wars and had hosts in key positions on both sides. Yawn. We’ve been there and got the T-shirt on this trope so many times.
So only one thing saves this book from dropping into oblivion. No matter how competent the alien, he’s only as good as the host when it comes to doing anything “important”. Although the alien can control the body when the host is asleep, this is not going to produce anything useful when the host wakes up (people on average sleep between seven and eight hours which leaves the host exposed to danger the rest of the time). So the alien has to negotiate with the host to persuade him to sign up for combat training. The bulk of the book therefore follows the slow process of losing weight, getting fit, and developing the reflexes to be able to fight and shoot. Except the mind is less than willing. This produces very indifferent results when our hero suddenly finds himself at risk. No matter how much he has trained, he still lacks self-confidence. His first instinct is to run but that’s not going to save him. At some point he has to fight. The interest therefore comes in watching the alien manipulate the human into at least attempting all this training, and then supporting him until his mind catches up to the new levels of physical fitness.
The result is slow moving and, despite the action sequences going on around him, less than engaging because the only way he survives is by accident. Coincidence and contrivance loom large to save our hero from his failure to develop proper reflexes and complete lack of self-confidence. There are vague attempts at humour but the jokes are repeated and quickly grow tiresome. It all goes on far too long before we get to the predictable climax in which the girl our hero has fallen in love with is threatened by evil Emperor Ming and he discovers he can hit harder than a girl. If someone in an editorial role had cut out all the deadwood, this could have been a good but limited story. There would have been some degree of balance in the characterisation to include believable human and alien females, and some explanation of how the alien sexuality works. We seem to have male aliens in male hosts. What happens when the genders fail to match up? Why is a coma not the same as sleep? These and other questions are just left hanging. Sadly, The Lives of Tao is bloated and boring. That it’s set up for a sequel is not good news unless someone with a lot more experience takes over the editorial role and guides this young writer round all the pitfalls.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.