Monday, January 19, 2015

Chi-SF: The Lives of Tao

Tao has apparently specced hard
into dual-wielding.
The Chicago Speculative Fiction Community recently discussed Wesley Chu's "The Lives of Tao". A Chicago author, this was Chu's first novel, published in 2013; he's already published a sequel and the third book in the trilogy is slated to be published in the near future. The plot revolves around a race of aliens who have been hiding among humans, guiding our civilizations and also fighting a war amongst themselves.

In theory, at least, discussions at Chi-SF follow a linear path around the table, with each attendee in turn giving their thoughts on the novel, after which it turns into a more free-ranging discussion. In practice, back-and-forths and tangents get going pretty early, but the Platonic ideal of the circular discussion is a nice framework to fall back to if a given thought plays out, or if we go way too far off topic. I tried to keep track of people's main comments, but as always, mistakes are mine, good/clever things might not be, and writing these up usually turns into a more personally reflective piece (meaning I blather on about my theories and peeves), rather than an accurate report of the group discussion (might have missed a lot of comments, mistook who said what, etc). Spoilers below!
Kim had suggested the book, and so started us off. She framed the story as a "schlub fantasy", a term I really like-- one of those stories where a seemingly-ordinary schlub "turns into something extraordinary through some method or other." Radiation, latent mutant powers, technology, finding out they're secretly heir to something or the "chosen one" or whatever--you know the drill. In this case, there's a race of gaseous aliens, the Quasing, who have been on Earth for millions of years and can only survive inside animal bodies. They're fighting an internal war to decide the course of human history, and when one their top agent's human host is killed, Tao (the alien in question) winds up fleeing into the body of Roen Tan. Roen is pretty straightforwardly characterized as a loser, but with the help of Tao and others from the good-alien organization, he shapes up into a James Bond-esque agent.
Kim acknowledged some of the book's flaws and overall lightness, I think her overall take was that she enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, I was up next--unfortunately because, alas, I found this book pretty excruciating. Not in a good way. The plot and ideas were unimaginative, and it has some characterization and ideological problems that bugged me, but honestly I could have forgiven all that if the writing hadn't been so bad. And it's really bad, on a technical, sentence-by-sentence level, as well as having some larger structural and editing issues. I'll give a few examples; I was reading a library hard-copy as opposed to my own or ebook, so I didn't annotate as heavily as I might have otherwise--frequent comments and "arghs" being one of the ways I stay sane through awful reads. These are out of context but I think the problems still show up pretty easily. Hundreds more, but here's a choice few:

161: "The fact that she enjoyed sports was just another bonus for them to have an even bigger crush on her." (Is it a bonus for them, or a reason for them?)

177, a real doozy: "After the harsh Chicago winters, the people congregated on the beach with enthusiasm like a colony of ants. The crowd was loud as the hordes of humanity crowded the small beach as if it was the last strip of sand in the Midwest. Actually, that might not be that far off, Sonya thought." (They ["the people", not "people"?] congregate like a colony of ants? Or with enthusiasm that's like an ant-colony's enthusiasm? Is the crowd AS loud as the hordes, or is it just the passive clause "crowd was loud"? Also, using "crowd" as a noun and a verb in the same sentence, uh, really? And why would Sonya think it's the only strip of sand in the Midwest--and why would it be written as a verbal phrase she's thinking, while the rest of the passage seems to be in a more distant third person?)

179: "She ordered a cocktail and made eye contact with an older white-haired German man..." (How do we know he's German? Does he...look German? Like traditional knickerbockers and all that?)

250: "Sean pulled out a small glass figurine of a turtle and caressed it in his hand. 'Say no more, Chiyva. I will bear all the strength at my disposal to see that your directives are carried out.'" (First off, "caressed it in his hand"...redundant at best. Then-- "say no more" to someone who can ONLY TALK TO HIM and LIVES IN HIS HEAD, and then "bear all the [do something]". What? None of that makes any grammatical sense.")

294: "The project was still on course, if not slightly delayed." (I found myself just kind of mouthing "if not slightly delayed" over and over again, waiting for the ambiguity to resolve. If it's NOT "slightly delayed", is it...delayed a whole bunch? Or not delayed at all? Argh. If you don't know how to use litotes, don't try.)

Specific examples aside, four prose-level issues I had:
1.) Over-use of cliches, particularly when used by the omniscient narrator. Not only weak/lazy writing, also introduces unintended ambiguity.
2.) Action scenes. This is a pet peeve of mine, not necessarily a hard rule, but any time that reading an action scene takes WAY longer than it would for that specific thing to happen, I strain my eyes with all the rolling. Happened repeatedly in all the martial-arts bits here.
3.) Serious problem with how the human/alien dialogue was rendered. Chu uses italics for the alien speech, and regular quoted text for the humans' internal responses; this makes group scenes very confusing because you never know when Roen is speaking out loud as opposed to in his own head.
4.) Tons of structure and pacing issues, places where Chu seemed to have forgotten what he was saying a few sentences ago.

Above and beyond writing issues (is there such a thing?) I was also deeply unimpressed with the book. It's not original--we brought up Hal Clement's novel "Needle" (1949), the Trill in Star Trek (primarily DS9), the mechanics of demonic possession in Gregory Hoblit's 1998 film "Fallen" (with Denzel Washington), and honestly the alien thetans in Scientology--an analogy that rings particularly true after talking about the ancient aliens/UFO religion/conspiracy theory threads of "Lives of Tao".

The more I thought about the situation, the more I didn't understand how the Quasings have got so much done/why they're so good at what they do--they're just voices in people's heads, granted with a lot of experience, but don't seem to really grant any abilities or powers per se. They could just as easily have been a mentor/technical assistant talking through a Bluetooth the whole time.

Also, gotta stick this in somewhere, but I really wish I hadn't read the "about the author" blurb, because then I wouldn't know that his wife is in this novel. Like, with her name, Paula Kim. Yet more proof for me that this is some straight-up fanfic-amateur-level writing.

Furthermore, it's ethical schema is all kinds of whack (how are we okay with even the "good" aliens forcing people to do their will), the science is GARBAGE, and there's this weird double-edged thing where Roen's status as a "loser" is reinforced rather than removed by his transformation; it also has a casual and probably unintentional chauvinism--Roen's two "love interests" are not only super cardboard, and "characterized" almost entirely in terms of "she's so pretty dur dur", Chu also resolves this "tough choice" between the two by KILLING SONYA SO HER ALIEN SOUL-MEMORIES CAN POSSESS THE OTHER WOMAN. Boom, problem solved, now they're the same chick! Ugh.

Alright, I'll try to ease off on the scare quotes. I kind of wonder if I would have read some aspects of this quite so critically if I'd encountered it pre-Gamergate discussions. Probably, but this last year has certainly seen a crystallization of criticisms surrounding "loser gamers" and their relation to women. (Please please please, internet gods & goddesses, don't let this turn into a Gamergate thread.)

Anne brought up the "Trinity Syndrome" as found originally in "The Matrix" (1999) or in "How to Train Your Dragon 2" (2014), where a "strong female character" who is introduced as bad-ass trains up the schlubby male lead, only to take a backseat, vanish, or need rescuing--certainly describes this novel pretty well. Check out the original Tasha Robinson article if you don't know it, it's pretty great.

Last Jake criticism: the whole "aliens have been secretly involved in all human history" idea *could* be interesting, but as presented here it is deeply bummer-ific. Chu's Quasings just take the credit for everything humans have ever done. Everything. All our wars, our plagues, our inventors, our poets--all either controlled by aliens, or just a cover for something else they were doing. A few of us found the off-hand comment that the Rodney King riots in L.A. were actually to cover for a Quasing operation, for instance, really offensive. It's a combination of a dumb idea greedily applied to all history ("no, all this stuff actually happened because of my story about aliens"), that really turned me off and--even though it's done fictionally/in jest--reminded me too much of the mindset of conspiracy believers, which drives me crazy.

Yet again reminded of Gibson, specifically his Chicago Humanities talk where he said of conspiracy theories that they must be both a.)simple enough to understand after a beer or six, and b.) actually more comforting than the reality--that we live in a universe that doesn't care about us, or the reality that actually people just do some dumb/awful stuff sometimes.

The flip side of this is--if they're taking credit for everything, and they've been around forever, why do they suck so bad at steering our technology? We got into a long discussion of what kind of changes could have been made to human history with that kind of input--even if the aliens were "regular folks", not engineers--how could their advanced knowledge have sped up human development? We brought up things like knowing about germ theory, removing the "imagination barrier" for technologies like flight, the possibilities of Romans with steam power or Aztecs with wheels, as well as ducking false or harmful theories like the four humours, phlogiston, mistaken alchemical models, etc.

Kind of an interesting digression on how a given modern person's transportation to the past could go, taken as the possible seed for a new storyline. Some of us were very pessimistic about what kind of actually useful, implementable knowledge we'd have without the whole support system of modern society. A few of us, myself included, are much more optimistic--I think with a decent grounding in basic science, or even just a good ability to explain those false leads/give some "crazy" but possible ideas to the right folks, one actually could make big changes.

This whole discussion resonated strongly with some of the discussion of time travel at the Classic SF's Meetup on Butler's "Kindred" earlier in the week, which was pretty serendipitous. I am also thinking of some of the "rapid post-apocalypse re-education" strategies as explored by the Long Now Foundation--partial inspiration for some of Neal Stephenson's "Anathem" (2008)--and Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" (1992) and sequels, where there's basically a whole branch of science/engineering/library-science dedicated to figuring out how to rapidly move up a tech-tree from any given more primitive start.

Jason found the novel "thin" in ideas, and agreed with a lot of the criticisms brought up, but also said he enjoyed it and is actually reading the sequel.

Joe had an interesting experience with the novel--his workload during the first half had him just looking for a light escape, so he was enjoying it. But as he progressed, he was doing more academic work, which made him engage with it more critically, and he got completely turned off and didn't even finish it. In addition to writing issues I and others brought up, he pointed out a few different glaring things that could have been caught by a good editor or writing workshop, like the several disenchanted months that Roen spends before "finding his purpose", which is literally compressed to a page or two. He also brought up some odd localisms--it's set in Chicago, where Chu actually lives, and showed a lot of knowledge/name-dropping of Chicago neighborhoods, but also included a lot of locally-obvious strangeness like how Roen drove/parked/got around.

Bill had a similar take as most of us--liked the popcorniness of it, but had criticisms. We went off on some long technical/biological musings about the Quasing and how they and their world work. We had some fun imagining some of the off-screen mechanics, for example the "Menagerie Chest" where hundreds of Quasings were kept trapped in tiny animals and how that must have worked. Hi-larious.

Mike had some kind of meta-commentary about how we critique SF novels; he brought up Bujold's "Captain Vorpatril's Alliance" (2012) and its Hugo nomination as an example of how enjoyment is a valid category to praise a novel for, regardless of writing or idea-level criticism. That said, he also went into some technological issues with the novel, most particularly with how Chu has his Quasings using satellites in ways that don't make sense.

Mike also had some strong criticisms of the ancient aliens crowd, which I really dug, particularly the question of "why people are so ready to believe the Egyptians couldn't have built the pyramids"--it shows not only an ignorance of history, but a lack of faith and imagination in human ability; it's a giving-up, a weird sort of sour grapes where they'd rather believe that NO humans could have done these amazing things (musta been aliens/gods/whatever) as a way of avoiding their own possibilities. Very inauthentic. (I'm embellishing a bit here, but this critique really resonated with me.)

Also, had to look up the math on this--if the Quasings are responsible for approximately 2% of schizophrenia cases, as the book states, then that would put their population as high as ONE MILLION, which seems totally out of place in this world (especially since they don't reproduce). Homework, dude.

Anne had a ton of criticisms, but also talked about the enjoyment of reading a flawed work--the way that one thinks about how these things could be fixed at a writing level, either by re-writing the whole thing in a new draft or by retconning this or that. She had a lot of specific critiques--besides the "Trinity factor", she also pointed out that there's just no characters here besides Roen/Tao and the main villain, and found this evidence of a serious lack of empathy. She critiqued some of the specific history points (such as the "Spanish" Inquistion), is incredulous of the "sports shoe philosophy" that gets a fat unathletic slacker trained up to an international martial arts commando in six months, and really got us discussing the ethical situation of the Quasings, even the good ones, taking people over and killing them if they didn't play along. As readers we're supposed to kind of gloss over this for Roen/Tao, but it's actually a deeply unethical situation that no amount of training montages should distract us from. Roen has to do what he's told, or he'll be killed so Tao can move to a new host.

These discussions led us to talk about the pleasures/pains of reading things that get it wrong. If you know a lot about a certain subject, and the author gets it wrong, it totally throws you out of the world; apparently this happened for Joe with the economy of Stross's "Neptune's Brood" (2013), which I want to hear about sometime. I brought up my most recent face-palming/book-throwing read, Andy Weir's "The Martian" (2014) which presents itself as really scientific but is actually blatantly, horribly wrong, consistently, empirically, if you know any of the areas he's trying to talk about. I brought up the dictum "write what you know" as a guideline that should prevent the worst excesses of this, and suggested that "read what you don't know" might be a weirdly-complimentary maxim--you'd avoid running into these kinds of experience-destroying breaks. But Anne followed up with how satisfying it is to run into an area of one's expertise treated well by an author, which is totally true.

Jason & Anne also brought up a bit of group-specific history I didn't know, which was that it used to be called the "Close Reading Group", which is awesome--it's a technique I assume to be the best starting place (though not the end) of any discussion of literature. Apparently it was too-often read as "Closed", which turned people away from trying to join, which is kind of depressingly meta (they don't know how to read enough to catch the other meaning of "close"), but understandable.

When I'm not reading for book clubs, I have a pretty well-honed ability to drop a book I'm not into. There's too much good stuff out there to commit to something bad. But! I'm sort of perversely glad that these clubs have got me to struggle through stuff I normally would have chucked aside--it's made me think about a lot that I otherwise would have bypassed, particularly in terms of writing, and also larger questions of how people read/how books get published. As we said as we were starting to go our separate ways, there are very interesting ways to fail, just as there are boring ways to succeed.

The question we're left with: what do Chu's characters have against Walter Mondale?

The March Chi-SF selection is Greg Egan's 1995 novel "Distress", but next up is Cixin Liu's "The Three Body Problem" which will be discussed at Capricon. It'll be at 10am, Saturday February 14th, not sure of the room yet. I will be out of town, unfortunately, but check out Chi-SF's Facebook event page for details.

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