The Lives of Tao is the second of Wesley Chu’s books that I have read. It is, I’m pretty certain, his debut novel, and has two sequels, The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao. I like Chu’s work quite a bit from what I’ve read of it, but this one has a few problems that didn’t show up in Time Salvager, which was the first Chu book I read. He has some major strengths as an author, chief among which is writing fast-paced books that are difficult to put down and writing solid action. The book has some weak parts, too, but we’ll get to those later.
The premise is thus: millions of years ago (think during the dinosaur age) a rather large group of aliens crashed on Earth. The aliens found Earth’s atmosphere uninhabitable for them and quickly discovered that the only way they would be able to survive on our planet was to effectively act as symbiotic organisms and inhabit the bodies of creatures that were already surviving on Earth. They were isolated from each other for millions of years (the aliens, the Quasing, aren’t precisely immortal– they can be killed– but they don’t die of old age) but eventually Earth managed to evolve intelligent life and ever since then the Quasing have been guiding our evolution as a species and trying to get humanity to a point where they can go back to space– which is apparently way more complicated than it sounds. The book picks up when Tao, a Quasing whose host has just been killed is forced to inhabit the body of an overweight, unambitious computer programmer named Roen Tan, and basically has to change him from a video-game-obsessed chubby schlub into an international man of mystery and combat operative in a not-especially long period of time. Oh and there are two different factions of the Quasing now and they don’t like each other all that much.
If that premise interests you, you should read this book; you’ll like it. If you’re already scratching your head and going “Well, wait, what about…” then you might want to skip it, as not quite fully thinking the premise through is why this is a perfect four-star book (out of five) for me. Over the course of the book you find out that most of the Quasing characters you encounter have inhabited major historical figures over the course of their, remember, theoretically infinite, millions-of-years-old lives. Tao himself was, among others, Genghis Khan and Zhang Sanfeng, who you may not have heard of but was the inventor of tai chi. At various points in the book Shakespeare, Galileo, the apostle Peter and any number of other important historical figures are all revealed to have been hosts for Quasing.
The problem is, “humans have never controlled their own destinies and have been inhabited by aliens manipulating them in a shadow war for literally all of history” isn’t the premise for an action-adventure with some comedy elements like this book. It’s the premise of a horror story. And the Quasing are not remotely alien enough to be actual aliens, much less aliens that are all millions of years old. It’s not quite clear how they’ve not managed to return themselves to space yet either; they’ve retained all of their scientific knowledge, but Chu’s need to keep to the actual human span of history means that there need to be ridiculous bits like Galileo having been told by a Quasing that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Did this just … never come up before? I mean, once humans had opposable thumbs and enough of an intellect to use their tools, what was keeping the Quasing from just jumpstarting us to at least something close to the level of technology they had? There are nods here and there to one of the factions not really wanting to alter human history that much, but there are apparently hundreds if not thousands of these things and they’ve been here for, again, the literal entirety of human history. There’s no human history to alter. There’s only Quasing history.
But again: I read this book in about three days in big gulps. If you can ignore the previous paragraph, if that sort of thing isn’t going to get under your skin and gnaw at you, you’re probably going to like this book, and even though I am one of those people I’m going to end up picking up the sequels. Don’t get me wrong: four stars, I enjoyed reading this. But the premise needed some work before this went to print. We’ll see if there are any corrections applied in the later books. For now? I’m still in.