I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the wish-fulfillment branch of sci-fi/fantasy. You know the kind, when the protagonist just could be you or someone you know. Like The Never-Ending Story for grown-ups. Hell, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Escapism’s half the reason we read, transporting ourselves to other worlds, other eras. Now and again it’s fun to be in our own era and our own bodies, becoming the hero, leaving the desk-job behind. Welcome to The Lives Of Tao.
Roen Tan is nobody. Slowly aging, getting wider every year, stuck in a cubicle farm in an anonymous software development company. He has no spine, his boss rules his life. He can’t gather the courage to ask for a date, and even if he did his lack of confidence and physique would make the outcome more or less certain. Then Tao comes into his life – and I mean literally.
Tao is a Prophus, an agent for one faction of an alien species fighting an invisible civil war among us. They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs, working to advance the evolution of local species until able to construct a craft to take them home. Why not do it themselves? The Prophus and their rivals the Genjix are gaseous lifeforms unable to survive in our atmosphere. They must inhabit hosts, sharing with them all of their memories from previous hosts through their unimaginably long lifespans. Humans, being the most intelligent species around, are their vessel of choice and all the major events of our history have been manipulated by them to allow us to advance technologically as fast as possible. The catch is that once a Prophus or Genjix enters a host they are stuck there until that host’s death.
Tao and his vessel Edward, something of a superspy in the James Bond mould, find themselves trapped following an incursion into Genjix territory – a Chicago skyscraper. Unwilling to allow his Prophus to be captured, Edward sacrifices himself, allowing Tao to seek out a new host. Unfortunately Tao’s time is limited and suitable vessels in the vicinity are thin on the ground. With scant seconds left on the clock Tao dives into… guess who?
The Lives Of Tao plays out more or less predictably from here on out. Tao, as a high-ranking spy, must whip Roen into shape in order to continue their urgent fieldwork. Cue a series of ridiculous training montages in literary form. You can almost hear the 80s cheese-rock pumping in the background as Roen has his befuddled ass kicked over and over by his mentors. All the time the Genjix are tracking him down, the net tightening around him as they race to eliminate him before his training is completed.
Sound silly? Yeah, that’s because it is. It’s gloriously silly, revelling in all the action tropes it picks up and abuses. This is not a book which takes itself seriously at all. That’s not to say it isn’t engaging though; I was hooked from the get-go by the basic premise, the hugely entertaining action scenes and Chu’s nerd humour. On top of this there’s a minor sub-plot unfolding in the background as Tao relates the history of his species’ arrival on Earth, his own experience in hosts such as Genghis Khan, and the schism which led to the current war. Some of the historical sections are wonderfully playful – the Black Death as a slate-cleaner to erase the Dark Ages? – while others are frighteningly plausible.
The Lives Of Tao is brain candy, no doubt, but with an uncanny gravitas which keeps it stuck in your head well after you finally force yourself to put it down. Especially recommended for any nerd who has ever found themselves hating a soulless office job.