Review: The Lives of Tao

The only redeeming feature of this book is that it makes me optimistic that if I ever manage to write a book I will easily get published as it can’t be any worse than this book.  Let me be clear, this book is not awful, it is merely praised far out of proportion to its quality.

The premise of the show is basically the same as the TV show Chuck except you replace the Intersect with aliens and the main character doesn’t become a martial arts master instantaneously.  It is also nowhere near as funny as a good Chuck episode (basically all of them in the first two seasons).  I don’t understand the reviews saying it was lough out loud funny, making dull jabs at the fat and unmotivated main character Roen barely elicits a chuckle from me.  To see this done right look no further than Bob of Harry Dresden or, keeping to the talking skull motif, Morte from Planescape Torment.

So the premise is fine, but Chu does nothing to flesh it out.  For instance all we know about the aliens are that they are somehow a spacefaring amoeba race that were somehow caught in a meteor shower and crash landed on Earth where the environment is hostile to them.  Their only hope for survival is to somehow inhabit other living creatures on Earth, which seems pretty sketchy considering they are not naturally parasites and the odds that they are compatible with Earth physiologies is pretty slim and the whole the host has to die for them to leave thing sounds incredibly contrived.  They at some point latch onto humans as the best chance for developing technology to return them to space.  Yet, they do an absolutely awful job.  Why wait until Newton to reveal gravity?  Why would you wipe out civilizations if your goal is new technology?  That seems counterproductive.  More people means more people thinking and more opportunities to develop something huge amounts of people want.  We live in the most peaceful era in human history and technological progress is growing as fast as it ever has.

Anyway, the aliens are terrible at shepherding humanity along and we know nothing else about them or their society before coming to Earth.  All we know is that the aliens split into two factions, one advocating war to speed up progress (see the previous paragraph for why this is dumb) and the other of a more benign bent.  Unfortunately, Chu merely tells us this because at not point in the book is the difference between the two factions ever made clear. Both are responsible for terrible things throughout history and both force themselves upon hosts just like in our main character’s case where he is unwittingly thrown into an global war between two Illuminati-like factions.  This certainly dampens much of the motivation to keep reading when you aren’t sure what each side is actually trying to accomplish.  Mostly the aliens just seem petty and out to wage their war with each other, decidedly unlike an ageless creature of an advanced race that has seen the rise and fall of countless human civilizations.

It’s like he doesn’t care about his setting at all.  We learn nothing about the elaborate organizations constructed by each alien faction.  Compare this with the Chequy in the book The Rook which made the supernatural espionage agency feel like an actual character.  Here nebulous superiors issue cryptic missions to subordinates and that is all we ever know.  Tao, the main character’s alien companion, despite being a founder of the good alien faction seems stuck as a grunt.  Furthermore, both sides complain about money, even worrying about 50,000 a day surveillance costs yet have secret mountain bases with large staffs and state of the art submarines.  It’s a bit incongruous that the good faction pays their people nothing while having all these resources at hand.  Also at one point the author claims Sun Tzu was part of the evil alien faction despite having lived long before the faction split.  As I said he has no respect for his setting.

So maybe he elided the details concerning the aliens and their operations to write a good story?  Except he didn’t.  His characters are just as shallow.  The main character’s only defining trait is that he is a fat slob with self esteem issues.  The author never manages to convince us that he changes and in fact even near the end he seems pathetic and weak.  This is after nearly two years of training, which is a lot.  But all the other characters are so nice and considerate tell him what a wonderful job he is doing even though he never really comes into his own.

His alien, Tao, is similarly disappointing.  At no point do you think this guy is thousands of millennia old from a technologically advanced race and that he nurtured such figures as Genghis freaking Khan.  Instead his role seems to be a peppy personal trainer for the fat loser that is Roen Tam.  The only thing he really offers is the ability to code quickly.  Meanwhile, Roen has to learn a bunch of skills that conceivably the alien could do, like how to spot a tail, or memorizing a bunch of things Tao should already know.  On top of that you get a lousy stipend to live on while you wage a secret war.  If I were Roen I would be mad that Tao dragged me into such a dangerous life with so few perks.  It’s not like he couldn’t have hired a personal trainer and taken some Tai’chi lessons himself…  Speaking of which Roen changes his life far too readily.  Is it really as easy as someone yelling at you all the time to take care of yourself?  They don’t even have to threaten him with the possibility of being eliminated so Tao can move to a better a host.

There are other characters that mostly serve to fawn over Roen from his creepily supporting girlfriend to the Lara Craft type to random dudes on missions who are all too nice to ever go around killing people.  Just once he needed to meet someone who was had no patience for his whining, incompetent ways.

Sadly, the plot doesn’t hold up either.  Roen is in a job he hates when Tao comes along.  Then we get a training sequence that has none of the rousing qualities of Rockie or any other sports movies or even Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.  We have people telling us Roen is getting better and always having an encouraging word for him.  Yet any evidence of his progress is lost every time he gets his ass kicked or opens his mouth to whine again.  If people are identifying with Roen I really worry about the generation of self-entitled cry babies we are raising.

He goes on a couple of dubiously motivated missions where we are once again assured that he is doing just GREAT! (say that in Tony the Tiger voice for best effect).  All of his teammates are super supportive even though his best attack is to throw his rifle at his foe so someone else can kill him.  Pretty sure real tactical forces would chew this guy up.  Again, a year of full time combat training is actually a lot, far more than our domestic police officers receive for instance and yet Roen is still an unmitigated pussy.

After assisting in the suicide of another alien he falls into depression and decides that he needs to watch TV for a few weeks.  It is at this point that Chu’s awful tendency to narrate things is particularly detrimental.  We are told, emphasis on TOLD, Roen hates his life and is melancholy and is letting himself fall apart again.  Then a few pages and months later he reaches some inane epiphany and Tao and him make up in a saccharine exchange of apologies.  It’s really awful stuff.

The last part of the book is some weird convention between the alien factions that actually had a lot of promise none of which is capitalized upon.  In its place his girlfriend shows up due out of the blue to be a damsel in distress (there was an easy set up for this but Chu sucks at plotting and just shoved it in with a quick throwaway explanation).  Then we get some poorly written combat that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me before Roen is off to save Lara Croft and his girlfriend from the clutches of the evil aliens.  Roen does a few heroic/stupid things and punches the bad guy in the wrist and breaks it (that seems unlikely unless he is geriatric).  The book ends with Jill being inhabited by an alien as was entirely predictable.

The problem with the plot is that there is no overarching goal.  What is the bad guy’s nefarious scheme?  What are the good guys trying to accomplish?  This all ties in with my earlier comment about he never SHOWS us what the difference is between the alien factions, unless he really is trying to portray the aliens as petty and using humans as pawns for their civil war.  Which is actually pretty cool, but seems unlikely to be how Chu wants us to respond.

On top of having no idea how to write characters or construct a proper plot, Chu’s writing would embarrass a lot of high school honor students.  His descriptions are dull and often confusing with improper usage of idioms.  As already laid out earlier, he retreats into narration far too often and at inopportune times.  Strangely I found the writing grew worse as the book went on.  I would have suspected he would grow stronger and more confident as he progressed, but the best scene in the whole book is the opening one.  Why couldn’t we have an entire book about Edward rather than pathetic creature that is Roen Tam?

Again I am just baffled at the praise heaped on this book.  There are many new authors far more deserving of it since they actually express a mastery of authorial skill.  Take The Rook for instance which brims with interesting characters and a well-developed clandestine agency and is also by a new author.  Yeah, I mentioned The Rook again, so if you haven’t read it go read it and ignore The Lives of Tao.  You can thank me later because you won’t be able to put it down.

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