Wesley Chu's The Lives of Tao is a novel that has to be defined as science fiction because it was a finalist in the 2014 Campbell Award for best new science fiction writer, but it is hard to pin down how best to categorise it and I will opt for superhero. Other options would be alien encounter or alternative history, but the narrative structure is very much that of the origins of a superhero that dominates superhero movies, if not the comic books on which those movies are based. The Lives of Tao tells the story of a gaseous alien life-form, Tao, who has lived on Earth for millions of years, but can only survive by living inside other lifeforms. Tao is one of many millions of his Quasing species that crash-landed on Earth in an early stage of evolutionary history.
By the time this novel picks up Tao's story he is in Chicago inside the body of a highly skilled spy, but he has to seek a new host and ends up inside Roen Tan, an overweight computer technician who is not spy material. Much of the novel concerns Tao training Roen to become a spy, so that Tao can rejoin the civil war between his Quasing faction, the Prophus, and their enemies, the Genjix. The Prophus want Tao back in action because of his skill as a spy and so the superpower held by Tan is that he has Tao (who once lived inside Genghis Khan) to help him fight. First Roen must be turned into a fighter and the novel's main theme is the banter between Tao and Roen as that training process takes place and the relationship between Roen and those other humans chosen to train him.
The closing section of the novel turns to action and Roen is the hero. This involves a huge change of pace from the rest of the novel that I did not appreciate until I began to think of the narrative as a superhero origins story. The story of Tao and Roe is continued in the sequel The Deaths of Tao and I found it to be the better novel, but to get the most out of it is best to read this first book in the series. I recommend The Lives of Tao as an interesting concept that is delivered with wit, but the denouement was a little disappointing.
The Lives of Tao was finalist in the 2014 Campbell Award.
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