The Lives of Tao — Wesley Chu

Cover of The Lives of Tao

The Lives of Tao
Wesley Chu
393 pages
published in 2013

I read this because Wesley Chu was nominated for the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and it was available in the Hugos Voters Package. I’d also seen it recommended at the local science fiction bookstore and had picked it up once or twice to sample it, though was never convinced enough to buy it. Because I was visiting my hometown for a couple of birthdays this weekend I took the opportunity of two long train journeys to read this, which worked out well.

From Myke Cole’s cover blurb — pulse-pounding, laughout-loud funny and thoughtful — you might guess that this was meant to be an action comedy story, which it was, but without the humour. This just wasn’t funny, I’m not sure it was actually ever meant to be funny and if you read this, set your expectations accordingly. The Lives of Tao actually is a geek wish fulfilment sf thriller, where the fat, underachieving, nerdy slop is taken out of his comfort zone and thrust into a worldwide conspiracy and finally gets the girl he’s been silently lusting after but was afraid to ask out. There may be a bit of pandering in this, you may have guessed.

The fat slob is Roen Tan and the way he’s trust from being just an office peon into the heart of a millions years old war between two alien factions covertly struggling to guide human history, is because one of those aliens had its host body die on it and Roen was the only one available to take him on. The alien is Tao, his previous host body was a suave James Bondesque secret agent with decades of experience and now Tao has to not only learn to work together with somebody new, but that somebody is as far from secret agent material as well, me.

The war Roen has been drafted into is between two factions of the same alien race, who crashlanded on Earth millions of years ago (and might have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs). They’re semi-corporeal, only able to survive on Earth long term by bonding with an animal. Millions of years pass, humans sort of start to get things going and the aliens start to guide human evolution with the sole goal of getting technology up to the level that they can go home. Along the way these aliens split into two factions: the Genjix, who are completely ruthless in chasing this goal and the Prophus splinter group, who are a bit more mellow and human friendly, who’ve been waging a covert war, manipulating history for centuries.

A lot of this book is setup material for what will be the rest of the series, as Roen is trained for his new role as one of the agents fighting this covert war and to help him with this he gets his own personal trainer, Sonya, who is basically the walking embodiment of the sexy, smart tough, uber capable female secret agent, there to both help the hero on his way and to serve as a trophy for his success. Chu sort of avoids some of the more skeevy aspects of this cliche; Roen falls for her and she for him as well, but they don’t get together and they become friends instead of lovers. It’s still such a cliche though and the way Sonya is consisently described, male gaze and all, is problematic too.

Much of the plot revolves around getting Roen into shape, while the Genjix are hunting for him and Tao and the latter slowly reveals to Roen his history. This is done in short paragraphs at the start of each chapter, much of which is set in the East and reveals that Tao had “possessed” e.g. Genghis Khan. As such The Lives of Tao is a typical setup book for the rest of the series, the second book of which has already been published. If you’ve read your share of thrillers and sf adventure stories, much of the shape of the story will be familiar to you, with the climax of the story being a series of set pieces.

The central idea driving the story isn’t that original either of course; giant conspiracies secretly manipulating history and historical figures being secret aliens are a dime a dozen in technothriller land. The way Chu has portrayed it here it seems all of history and anybody of historical importance was an alien, which is just one of those things you have to swallow for the sake of the story; a cool idea but which falls apart when you examine it closely. A lot of The Lives of Tao feels that way to be honest, e.g. if Roen/Tao is feared so much the Genjix pull out all stops to find him, why is he able to stay in his flat?

The Lives of Tao is not a bad book, certainly not for a first novel. It moves along quickly and Chu has a good eye for writing fight scenes, which help a lot in an adventure story like this. What lets it down are the sexual politics, especially in the climax of the story where the oh so capable Sonya becomes just another damsel in distress as well as some of the sloppy worldbuilding. As long as you’re not too annoyed by the first and can read fast enough not to stumble over the latter, this is a decent enough romp.

Fugue for a Darkening Island — Christopher Priest

Cover of Fugue for a Darkening Island

Fugue for a Darkening Island
Christopher Priest
125 pages
published in 1972

There are certain protocols you have to take into account as a reviewer when discussing the books of a new, young writer. Protocols that are still in effect when the author has aged more than forty years since the first publication of his novel and has become a grand old man in the meantime, prone to gently correcting younger writers. Anything that can be said about Fugue for a Darkening Island has to be tempered by the realisation that it is a fortytwo year old novel, not necessarily indicative of the writer Priest now is.

But the truth remains that Fugue for a Darkening Island is a problematic work, a novel with its heart I think in the right place, but which features certain unfortunate themes in Priest’s work that will return in later novels, somewhat muted. I’m thinking of last year’s The Adjacent, featuring a near future Islamic Republic of Great Britain as well as the much earlier A Dream of Wessex which had parts of Britain as a caliphate, but also of The Separation and its naive story of a better world created by a separate peace between nazi Germany and Britain. In short, Priest sometimes goes for settings you’d sooner expect to see in the stories of the more reactionary Baen writers and A Fugue for a Darkening Island is one of those novels, a near future Britain ripped straight from the front pages of National Front propaganda, as the country is flooded by a never ending stream of African refugees destroying the British way of life, its hero a decent middleclass Englishman trying to find a new home for him and his family.

If that sounds like the setup for a British version of The Turner Diaries, this wasn’t his attention according to Priest. In the introduction to the revised edition that came out a few years ago, he actually lamented the fact that what was received as a progressive story at the time of publication, became much less so over time. It is of course not alone in this; much of the earnest progressive commentary on the matters of race in the media of that time now comes across as borderline racist or worse today, if only because of a lack of input by those actually suffering from racism. Priest wanted to comment on the struggle with the birth of Britain’s multicultural society as well as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the predicted “race wars” that were bound to happen in England through the usual science fictional exagerration. Which is what good science fiction writers should do, but when even the revised edition of your novel can still draw an admiring review from a rightwing xenophobic site, you do have to wonder if you’ve done the right thing. And for god’s sake don’t read the comments.

In Fugue for a Darkening Island a nuclear war has made much of Africa uninhabitable, leading to an exodus from the continent to better places, including Britain. The first most Brits notice of this is when bodies of refugees start wash up on their beaches (not unlike what’s been happening in the Mediterranean in real life currently). As the number of refugees increase and start to land in Britain, a rightwing government is elected to handle it; its autoritarian measures are useless though and as tensions increase, more and more white English take matters in own hand. Riots, street fights and racial conflicts lead to a general civil war as the country disintegrates and the central government disappears. All of which we see first hand through the eyes of Alan Whitman who is not the
most sympathetic of narrators, a thoroughly middle class family man, regularly cheating on his wife. T

The first words of his story are “I have white skin”, as he describes how he looks when the crisis first hit him and his family personally, then six months later, as the country has disintegrated. Throughout the novel we get these three distinct storylines, the first following Whitman in the present trying to survive in the aftermath of the civil war, the second telling how the refugee crisis went from background noise in his life to engulf him and the last telling the broader story of how the crisis came to be, following Whitman in his everyday life. It’s effectively done, the storylines echoing and re-echoing each other.

Whitman as said is not a sympathetic character and he comes over as flat and affectless, rarely emotional. This actually fits in well with the horrors he encounters. It also helps to counter some of the racist appeal of the scenario, avoiding lurid descriptions of racial violence. Nevertheless reading this some four decades later, the similarity with more noxious rightwing racial fantasies kept me uncomfortable throughout it.

Though this was mildly controversial when first published and made Priest known to a wider audience, Fugue for a Darkening Island is a minor work, something that points to his later, better work, but done much more clumsily and less subtle. Probably a novel you can safely skip unless you are a Priest completist.

Zero Sum Game — SL Huang

Cover of Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game
SL Huang
305 pages
published in 2014

If it wasn’t for her blogging about the renewed SFWA controversies back in January, I would never have heard of SL Huang or Zero Sum Game, her first novel. She’s not the first author I bought books from on the strength of their online writing. I knew Jo Walton and Charlie Stross as Usenet posters before I’d read their fiction and Ian Sales as a blogger before I read his Apollo Quartet books. It’s of course not guaranteed that somebody who’s a good blogger or poster is also a good fiction writer, but so far I haven’t been disappointed.

Zero Sum Game opens with its heroine tied down to a chair watching the fist of Rio, the one man in the whole world she trust coming at her face hard and fast enough to break her jaw. As she watches, lines of force, numbers and probabilities dance before her eyes, giving her a way to take the blow without getting more damage than a split lip. Barely a minute later she sees a way in which she can free herself, kill the four Columbian mobsters in the room and knockout Rio, all while evading the thugs’ gunfire, and takes it, escaping just as more thugs come barreling in. Jumping through the only outside window calculated in such a way as to not get herself torn to pieces, shen then doubles back to get the woman she needed to rescue from the gang, knocks out the guards outside with perfectly aimed rocks thrown to their foreheads and escapes in a hotwired jeep. All in a day’s work for Cas Russell, math savant extraordinaire.

Of course it quickly turns out that this isn’t a normal day’s work, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. It soon turns out neither Courtney Polk, the woman she was hired to rescue, nor Dawnea, Courtney’s sister are quite who they said they are, but much worrying than that is how easily Cas believed Dawnea in the first place and how much effort it costs her to stop doing so. What started as a quick extraction turns into a nightmare in which at least two parties are hunting Cas, at least one wanting her dead and her only ally, apart from her psychopathic friend Rio, is Anton, an ex-cop turned detective who’s too noble for his own good.

Zero Sum Game is a fast paced action story, which never stands quite still enough to let the reader ask difficult questions. It takes skill to do this, more skill to convincingly show Cas Russell’s math skills in action. Cas can calculate the flightpath of every bullet in a firefight instantaneously, then move fast enough to not be where they will end up, she can sees how to jump through a plate glass window in such a way as to not get cut to death, able to pluck business cards out of the air without looking; she’s basically a superhero. Superheroes are easy to do in comics, not so much in text and it takes a good writer to write believable, fast paced and compelling action scenes for them. SL Huang manages to do so very well:

Specular reflection. Angles of incidence. Perfect. As long as the cop wasn’t going to fire blind, I had him. Hands still raised in the air in apparent surrender, I twitched my left wrist.
At the speed of light, the glint of sunlight came in through the window, hit the bathroom mirror, and reflected in a tight beam from the polished face of my wristwatch right into the cop’s eyes.
He moved fast, blinking and ducking his head away, but I moved faster. I dodged to the side as I dove in, my right hand swinging out to take the gun off line. My fingers wrapped around his wrist and I yanked, the numbers whirling and settling to give me the perfect fulcrum as I leveraged off my grasp on his gun hand to leap upward and give him a spinning knee to the side of the head.

But just writing action scenes well doesn’t a good novel make. While the plot itself is basically an action movie, complete with supervillain, where Huang really shines is in her portrayal of Cas. Cas is not a well woman emotionally, not a well woman at all, but it takes time for you as the reader to realise this, as she doesn’t realise this herself, or doesn’t allow herself to recognise this. At first she just seems supremely confident and capable, her mathemagical abilities giving her the upper hand in almost every situation. It’s when those are challenged, when the manipulations of Dawnae Polk makes her doubt them for the first time in her life, that she starts to doubt herself.

The other thing that’s started to make her doubt herself is Anton, the detective not turned love interest and thank god for that, because how often do you get a story like this where the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her sidekick but instead is just grateful to start a friendship? Before she met him and started to care for him she knew she was bad at dealing with people and their emotions, but she didn’t mind it, didn’t mind what they thought of her, but now she does. And that’s almost as scary as having her mind altered against her will.

Zero Sum Game isn’t perfect — there are times when it feels more like a movie script or television treatment than a novel, but it is a hugely entertaining story, one that made me eager to read on. Go buy.

Peacekeeper — Laura E. Reeves

Cover of Peacekeeper

Laura E. Reeves
324 pages
published in 2008

Peacekeeper is the sort of novel you pick up knowing full well it’s probably not going to be very good, but hopefully will be entertaining. It helps, if like me, you have a bit of a weakness for military science fiction and are willing to lower your standards. Once you’ve voluntarily read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series the chances are you’ll read most anything. And, to be honest, Peacekeeper wasn’t that bad. Very much the first novel in a trilogy, but decently paced and competently written. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to read the sequels, but wouldn’t pass them up either If I came across them.

Ariane Kedros is the pilot of the scout ship Aether’s Touch, which she runs together with her employer Matt Journey. She’s also a reserve major int he military of the Consortium of Autonomous Worlds, which has just fought a brutal war with the Terran Expansion League, until strong hints from the Minoans — the aliens who had uplifted humanity into space and faster than light travel — put both parties at the negotiating table. Though nobody but Ariane’s superior, colonel Owen Edonus of the Directorate of intelligence, knows, in the eyes of the Terrans she’s also a war criminal, having piloted the ship that destroyed an entire solar system using temporal distortian weapons. As part of the peace treaty both sides will have to stand down and destroy said weapons and colonel Edonus has tapped Ariane to be part of the team that will escort a Terran inspection team at one of the CAW’s facilities. He of course has a hidden motive for this: somebody is killing off the people involved in the mission that made Ariane a war criminal and she’s put out as bait…

Meanwhile, once Ariane is sent on her mission, Matt gets caught up in the murder of a business partner, which seems to be related to a piece of ancient alien technology he and Ariane have found during their last explorations, something that might be similar to Minoan technology but not be of Minoan origin. Something that might make humanity no longer dependent on the Minoans so much. To get out from his troubles Matt has to apply for help from colonel Edonus, the last man he would want to help him.

Finally there’s the Terran State Prince Isrid, one of the people who has been most fanatical about getting the war criminals that had destroyed the Ura-Guinn star system. He has had to set this aside as the political reality changed and it was no longer convenient for the Terran government to use this atrocity as propaganda. He’s coming as leader of the Terran inspection team to the same facility as Ariane is on. The question for her is whether he’s the one behind the killings and what will happen once they meet; does he know she was part of the crew as well?

Much of these other subplots is setup for the next book, with the central mystery in Peacekeeper being who is killing Ariane’s old crew members and why. The obvious answer, that it’s the Terrans, is of course not the right one. That’s only to be expected, but unfortunately the revelation of the real villain came too much out of the blue for me, didn’t arise naturally from the story. In general the plotting was on the weak side, more a series of events that happen to Ariane than a solid story.

In general Ariane was too much of a victim and not enough of an active participant. She gets attacked, kidnapped, tortured, dropped off, almost kidnapped again, almost killed and never quite is in control, manipulated by friend and enemy alike. Matt meanwhile gets to do even less, mainly looking on as others rush into action, there to get the plot explained to him.

Pulling back slightly further from the plot, I wasn’t really convinced by the central moral conflict of the story, the idea that Ariane and her crew didn’t commit war crimes by blowing up an entire star system because they were following legitimate orders and that the sole reason the Terran state prince Isrid is hunting them is because he didn’t believe they were. That’s a bit much for a crime of that magnitude, even if we do learn through a flashback that Ariane and her crew had been lied to about the true nature of their mission.

Worldbuilding in general felt a bit off. At first this looks like a bogstandard milsf future, with two vaguely defined powers in conflict with each other, but there are some oddities. Many of the cultural references, religion and names we see seem to have been derived from classical Greece and there are hints that the history before humanity was contacted by the Minoans wasn’t quite our own. Certainly the future we see here, with e.g. both Christianity and Islam absent in favour of Gaia worship, with Jesus and Mohammed both reduced to minor prophets in her service, can’t quite be reached from here. The problem is that while Reeves does do a lot of proper infodumping, they don’t quite add up to explaining the setting. At first it made me wonder if, despite the lack of indicators of such, this perhaps was a sequel to an earlier novel. Having looked it up though, this is in fact Reeve’s first novel, so my guess now is that this has been a story she had been thinking about for years and she wasn’t entirely successfull in realising that what might’ve been obvious to her about it, may not be the same for her readers.

All of which adds up to a not entirely satisfactory novel; not a bad novel though for what I expected of it and something that I still enjoyed reading. It’s just that you can see the seeds of a much better novel in this.

The Ship Who Sang — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of The Ship Who Sang

The Ship Who Sang
Anne McCaffrey
205 pages
published in 1969

Some writers you can only appreciate if you discover them in the golden age of science fiction — twelve — because at that age you’re less likely to notice the two dimensional characters, slipshod plotting or obnoxious politics you would’ve noticed as a more experienced reader. McCaffrey is such a writer for me. I loved her books when I was twelve and reading them from the local library, but trying my hand at some of her later works ended in disappointment. There’s also the danger of rereading cherished childhood classics and finding that in hindsight, they’re not so great after all. With McCaffrey’s early Dragonriders novels I already took that gamble and got lucky, now I’ve reread perhaps her best known novel outside that series and see if The Ship Who Sang was as much of a tearjerker as I remembered.

Sentiment is an underrated emotion in science fiction, something we’re a bit embarrassed about, but which plays a greater role than you’d expect in such a “rational” genre. Quite a few classics thrive on it — “Helen O’Loy”, “Green Hills of Earth”, “Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion” all spring to mind — and as I remembered The Ship Who Sang, it positively wallowed in it, in this story of a severely disabled girl whose only hope for any sort of life was to become the “brain” of a spaceship, who then found love in the arms of her “brawn” partner only to lose him to cruel, cruel fate. The perfect sort of story for a sensitive twelve year old, but would it hold its appeal?

Sadly, no

The problems start literally from the first paragraph:

She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not, that though the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.
The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was the final, harsh decision: to give their child euthanasia or permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain’, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions. As such, their offspring would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.

That’s a fairly dodgy attitude even in a novel written at a time and in a country that had no problems with involuntary sterilisation of undesirable people and nonconsentual medical experiments, let alone now we’ve sort of managed to accept disabled people as human. To have a writer approvingly talk about euthanasia for mentally disabled babies, or lifelong servitude for those merely severely physically disabled, if their parents allow it, is a reminder of how social darwinist (or downright fascist) science fiction could be and sometimes still is.

It left a nasty taste in my mouth, though for the rest of the novel this background is never referred to again and Helva, the protagonist, is perfectly happy being a Brain. What reinforces that feeling is the way the Brains are forced into servitude to pay off the huge debts they occurred from being kept alive the way they are, which they have to work off in service to Central Worlds. What’s more, anything that Helva needs as a ship to fulfil the missions she’s sent on she needs to pay for herself, including any damage done to her in the mission. It does feel a lot like slavery, even if she does get paid for these missions as well. All of this is completely ignored in the stories that make up this novel, just part of the background, a device to get Helva to go on dangerous missions to pay off her debts.

I didn’t remember any of this from the last time I read The Ship Who Sang, decades ago; what I remembered was the romantic story at the heart of it, as Helva comes of age and gets her first partner, the “brawn” who will handle all those physical tasks on planet she can’t do herself. It’s during the party for the eight candidates that Helva gets her name as “the ship who sings”, as she reveals her ability to do just that and turns out to have a perfect voice that can do anything the best “normal” singers can do. That’s when she first meets Jennan, the only one to consistently talk to where her physical presence was located in the heart of her ship-shell, the one she immediately falls in love with and who actually dies less than ten pages later. The rest of the novel is about Helva dealing with her loss and grief, ultimately finding new love in the strangest of places.

Because this is a fixup novel however, with each story in it originally having been published as a standalone, the characterisation of Helva is rather two dimensional and that deep love and deeper grief doesn’t look so impressive anymore as it did at age twelve. The sentiment is there, but much of it has dissipated after the first two stories, McCaffrey preferring to tell perfectly good sf puzzle adventure stories for the rest of the book. These are decent enough on their own, but I missed the emotion in them I remembered.

In its place was something more nasty, a deep ingrained sexism that again I completely missed the first time around. Helva is consistently shown to be “not like other girls”, one of the boys, while other women are either victims or harpies, largely illogical and emotional, with things like logic and emotions explicitly shown in gendered terms. It’s all very Heinleinian, with McCaffrey having the same sort of this is how the world works and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool tone in her writing her. It’s very offputting and offensive once you notice it.

Without the sexism, without the dodgy background McCaffrey gave the novel, what remains is a great idea executed through decent if not worldbeating stories. It’s typical of the science fiction of this generation that most of the interesting stuff is discarded so quickly, largely due to the length restrictions it had to labour under. This after all is a novel of barely 200 pages, which tells half a dozen of stories during it. That leaves little room for anything but plotting.

A bit of a disappointment then, another book I’d with hindsight should’ve left to memory.