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The Lives of Tao

Posted by Vanessa On Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Roen Tan is a truly ordinary guy. He's got a software-coding job he tolerates, his roommate is smarter and better-looking than he is, he visits the bars on weekend, could use a gym membership, and can't bring himself to asking out that cute co-worker for a drink.

Until one fateful day when Tao, an alien stuck on Earth for thousands of years, is forced to find a host body ASAP--he cannot survive long in Earth's toxic environment--and Roen is it. This event changes Roen's life completely as he is thrown into a war between aliens, with his own life in the crosshairs. He must train while his identity is still unknown, or else risk dying and sending Tao on to another host.

THE LIVES OF TAO follows Roen's training and brings us up to speed on the Quasling's secret war among the humans. While humans were barely a thought, the Quaslings were stranded on Earth and were key in human development; sometime during the Middle Ages, they broke into factions, their differing philosophies of human development the reason. You can blame WWI and WWII on their struggle, and even events such as a the Spanish Inquisition. You'd think that beings who have lived for thousands of years would know better.

Personally I think this is more a guy book. I'm sure there are some women who'll enjoy it, but I found THE LIVES OF TAO goofy, campy, and boring. Chu tries to make Tao sound wise, but it doesn't come across naturally--like a high school kid trying to sound wise without having really lived it.

The prose was pretty utilitarian. There was enough description to get by, but the emotions felt tacked on, as though his editor told him to add some in before the final draft, or else Roen would have felt like a robot (he still kind of did). Roen has conversations with Tao in his head, but I couldn't always tell the difference between this and what he does say out loud, so that was awkward and confusing. It's easy to compare Chu with other Campbell Award nominees, such as Max Gladstone, and look at a couple pages of only the prose--it's easy to see that Chu has a long way to go before his prose loses its awkward choppiness.

Roen himself wasn't a very exciting guy. Not that he had to be exciting, but he didn't have much more than a standard personality. I guess that was the point, kind of like the T.V. show Chuck, how the regular guy ends up becoming an agent. But TAO falls flat. Does he have any hobbies? Interests? The secondary characters fare even worse, with Roen's roommate a mere caricature, his girlfriend woefully undeveloped, and even Tao the wise one himself felt bland.

The story is ok, even a little fun what-if. And I understand the point of the story as Roen deals with his new-found knowledge as well as the new military life that doesn't suit him at all. But it was so boring. I just didn't care about Roen doing another tai chi training, or splurging on pizza because of a rough workout, or his crush on trainer Sonya (the host of another alien). It all felt like a meandering lead-up to what should have felt like an exciting, explosive ending, except that his description of action is a perfunctory and bland recount of what fist went where.

My biggest gripe is what the entire story ends up revolving around: Tao forces himself on Roen, who ends up having to train and completely turn his life around for some alien with unknown purpose. How's Roen supposed to know Tao is actually the good guy? Roen ends up becoming a solider in a war he didn't sign up for and for which he's woefully inadequate, no matter how much training he gets. Just doesn't seem like something a nice alien would do to some poor shmuck.

Read THE LIVES OF TAO and vote for it if it's better than the other stuff on the Campbell Award Nominations list, but I doubt it is.

Recommended Age: 14+ pretty safe stuff for your teenage boys
Language: Not much
Violence: A fair amount, but not gruesome
Sex: Vague references

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