Ok, raise your hand if you’ve ever wondered, or ever suspected, or even mused that perhaps throughout our history, humanity has been influenced by beings outside our gene pool. Admit it, you have, right? Maybe just in fun, and maybe with a bit of wishful thinking to offset the stupid things we humans can sometimes do. (Or maybe, you really do like your conspiracy theories – to each his own!)
In The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu has taken that notion and run with it. And punched with it. And done surveillance with it, and opined with it and learned t’ai chi and gotten beaten up and fallen in love with it. All without losing touch with his bumbling, relatable and oh so humbling human main character.
Roen Tan is not a very remarkable human. He’s an overweight, out of shape loser in a dead end IT job that he hates, from which he has come close to being fired simply because his not caring has built to an epic level. In his early 30s, he lives in a nondescript apartment in the shadows of downtown Chicago with a smart ass roommate who is just as socially inept as he is. Well, almost.
Then one night, on the way home from an uneventful – and actually, somewhat humiliating – night out drinking and clubbing (“He was out another hundred bucks – thirty to get in, and seventy on drinks for himself and the four girls that ditched him the instant they got them.”), he stops at a red light and leans out of his car in order not to vomit on the faux leather upholstery of his beat up old Ford. That’s when he meets Tao. And that’s when his life changes.
Tao is not human – not even remotely so. He’s a Quasing, a race of intergalactic travelers who crash landed on Earth millions of years ago.
Our ship was passing near your system when it was caught in a meteor shower. Its cocoon was damaged and unable to regenerate. Dying, the ship steered us towards your planet, hoping to survive long enough to land. However, your atmosphere petrified its outer membrane as we entered Earth’s orbit and the ship broke into several pieces. Our kind was scattered all over the planet. The devastation was massive and caused severe climate changes to your environment.
“Wait, you caused the Ice Age?”
Yes, we indirectly killed the dinosaurs.
The Quasing are non-corporeal; they instead inhabit other creatures in a symbiotic relationship. They also are self-regenerating; as long as they have an organic host to inhabit, they can live indefinitely. When one host dies, they transfer into another; the process of “expulsion” and transference, if not done immediately, is when the Quasing are most vulnerable. This is how Roen ended up being Tao’s unwitting host. Forced to hurriedly flee his prior host, Tao was almost at the point of his own death, unable to continue in his un-cocooned, gaseous native form, when Roen stopped at the light and opened up his car door to puke. It was either Roen, or death. Tao chose Roen. He ended up only regretting that decisions a few times in the following months.
Of course, things are never this simple; it always gets complicated. It turns out, the Quasing knew the only way they would be able to return to their home world was to build another spacecraft. And the only way they could do that would be to push the evolution of a particular species towards mechanics and space travel; in the end, they picked homo sapiens. What followed was millennia wherein the Quasing manipulated events to ensure the rise and development of humanity.
The time it would take to get humanity to point where they would be valuable was not daunting to the Quasing – they are, after all, pretty much immortal, and they knew patience. However, over the years, two very decidedly different views on how best to achieve their aims had erupted, causing disruption, division, and eventually all out warfare between the two main Quasing factions: the Prophus, who valued peaceful processes utilizing cooperative collaboration, and the aggressive, contemptuous Genjix, who cared little for humanity and a lot about absolute power. When Tao merged with Roen, he was fleeing a Genjix killing team, intent on eradicating the Prophus elder after a botched covert mission.
The story of Roen and Tao is not a new one, with the not-so-loveable loser overcoming his own shortcomings when placed in an extraordinary situation, with the crusty yet wise advisor guiding his progress. But Wesley Chu has rewoven a truly engaging tale with some novel twists. Quasing meddling in human development has been quite extensive, and learning along with Roen the influential people who excelled with the help of their alien counterparts is thought provoking and even at time irking – and often, quite humorous. This clever gimmick slips in some interesting connects with history and puts current events into a compelling perspective.
Of course, it’s best not to look too closely at the lessons, examples, provocations and incentives built into this story; author Chu plays a little loosey-goosey with historical facts and natural laws, and deftly sidesteps such sticky traps as religion and nationalism. It’s not that he doesn’t slip in some pretty heady thoughts, especially surrounding morality and influence, but he keeps it true to that which would concern Roen, who is definitely not some kind of esoteric coffee house soy latte sort of guy. It’s by staying true to the genuineness of his character – this particular character of Roen – that is part of the huge appeal of this book.
In January, the Alex Awards were announced by the Association for Library Service to Children (the group that hands out the Newbery and Caldicott Medals for children’s literature). The Alex Awards are given to the 10 best adult books that appeal to teens, as determined by the nation’s librarians. The Lives of Tao is one of those 10 books given the 2013 award, which speaks volumes about the universal appeal of this book. Interesting enough to engage adults yet fast moving and relatable enough to capture the interest of teens, The Lives of Tao is a rollicking good story that has you rooting for the little guy. As the tag line to the novel says, “There’s a hero inside every one of us.” If Roen Tan can do it, so can we, no matter who we are. And that’s not a bad thing to root for.