The Big Idea: Wesley Chu
Posted on April 30, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
You like odd couples? In The Lives of Tao, author Wesley Chu has got an odd couple for you. A very odd couple.
I originally had a little trouble pinpointing the Big Idea for The Lives of Tao. Should I use the big idea I had when I first conceived the story, or should I go with the other big idea that manifested at the end? After all, big ideas could morph, couldn’t they?
I’m not great at elevator pitching, so for The Lives of Tao, I developed a little skit between the aliens in the book and humanity:
Alien: I’ve possessed you. Now, do as I command.
Human: Hmm… yeah, no. I don’t think so. I’m going to go watch TV instead.
Alien: But I’m all wise and advanced and…and stuff.
Human: How about this? Make it worth my while.
I’m one of those writers who love to build a mousetrap, plop the little fuzzballs in, and watch them suffer. In The Lives of Tao, I began by asking this: “What if many important historical events since the beginning of time were just part of a war between two alien factions using humanity as pawns in a massive game of chess?”
Now, aliens messing with mankind is a time-honored tradition in science fiction. We’re just so easy to mess with. For some reason, they’re always here to eat us, enslave us, take our resources, or steal our women, and they usually have a pretty easy time of it. After all, they’ve got the ships, technology, and in Joss Whedon’s case, space chariots. Humans only ever win, thanks to good ole’ fashioned ingenuity, in the last thirty minutes of the movie.
So that was my original mousetrap. I had assumed we humans were the mice and the aliens, known as the Quasing, were part of the trap. But then, I made two crucial decisions that changed the entire concept of my original big idea. I decided that, in order to complicate the plot and the relationship between the humans and the aliens, the inhabiting Quasings couldn’t control the humans; they could only talk to them. Then I made it so that once the alien inhabited the human, they couldn’t leave until the human host dies.
Suddenly, the aliens weren’t part of the mousetrap. They were right there alongside the humans trying to figure things out. This is when the big idea morphed. See, it is one thing to be someone in a position of power: when you’re the boss, captain, or leader, you give orders and others follow. Easy as pie. There’s little deviation from that chain of command.
However, what if you’re not the boss? What if you’re an all-wise ancient alien inhabiting a human and you want him to do something, but he refuses? Toss in thousands of years of alien manipulation, a civil war over control of humanity’s evolution, and now the bigger, better mousetrap is set. Time to put the little fuzzballs in and see what happens.
At the beginning of The Lives of Tao, Tao’s host had just died while on a mission for the Prophus, one of the factions fighting in the alien civil war. Unable to survive long in Earth’s atmosphere, Tao fled into the first available human, Roen Tan, an overweight lazy guy meandering through life.
I had created complete histories for Tao and Roen, and wanted to see how their personalities clashed. On one hand, we had Tao who was an all-wise alien who usually inhabited super spies and once had inhabited the likes of Genghis Khan, Lafayette, and the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. On the other hand, we had Roen, an overweight thirty-something loser who still ate frozen pizzas for dinner, got tongue-tied around women, and sucked wind every time he climbed a couple flights of stairs. As expected, the relationship started out testy, but what grew out of that trial by fire gradually turned into the highlight of the book, and it surpassed every other plot point in the novel.
So in the end, the big idea for The Lives of Tao is about the friendship that grew between Roen and Tao as they worked together to achieve both their objectives. Along the way, Roen helped Tao continue the fight against the humanity-manipulating Genjix while Tao helped turn Roen into a dynamic character who managed to lose weight, develop a stiff jab, find love, and ultimately discover a purpose in life.
All Tao needed to do was give Roen a reason to make it worth his while.
The Lives of Tao: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Ooooh! I’m liking what I’m hearing on this one! Gonna check it out!
Very intriguing concept – much better conceived than that “Host” thingy (I refuse to call anything Stephenie Meyer wrote as “books”) …
That sounds pretty interesting. It goes on The List.
Sounds good! Also reminds me a bit of Hal Clements’ ‘Needle’ but with a larger background. On the list it goes…
Yeah, I’ve got to go and read this. Arrgh, too many books…
The concept sounds familiar. I remember reading a book in the 70’s about a soldier who get’s shot in Vietnam and dies in the 1st chapter. He is resurrected by an alien and is made immortal in the 2nd. The rest of the book is a war between two immortal aliens for the main character’s soul, trying to influence him on which of them was going to win the war. The main character ends up getting the other two immortals in the same spot, and knocking them off. I can’t remember the title of the book now. Too many paperbacks as a kid. The titles all run together.
This doesn’t mean I won’t try to track down this book to read it though.
Supercool! On the list it goes!
Hm, Going backwards through the cover silhouettes, I see a gamer with a ps3 controller, a (Blackwater?) guy with an ak47, a Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran with an m4, a guy doing a James Bond pose with what I assume is a Walther PPK, a 1980-ish US veteran with an m16, a vietnam vet with an m14, a ww2 (or possibly Korean war?) vet with a tommy gun. a… ww1(?) vet with a pistol? And then it gets all medieval. The guy with the mace I don’t recognize. A knight in armor. A… viking? and a samurai.
I dunno. I would hope that if there were a bunch of all-wise ancient aliens running around advising humans, that they would come up with better solutions than war, war, and more war.
Greg- War is just another means of resource allocation. Unless every the majority of the parties are ethically advanced, conflict is the the likely result. And unless I misread, the aliens definitely don’t have a majority position.
As for Hal Clement’s Needle, okay YA fiction that has a vaguely similar start.
My question and why I will read this , is do the aliens have an investment strategy that the hosts benefit from? I mean long term wise ancients… are they not capitalists?
What I want to know is: does Tao try to trick Roen into having an “accident” somewhere where Tao could transfer to a new host? Or is Tao too “good guy” for all that?
By definition, if there were, then they have not. [see: human history]
Well, since the author says the aliens have goals, then their efforts are, by definition, an investment in achieving those goals. Beyond that, I’m fuzzy on what you mean. Presumably their “capitalism” would need to transcend money, since money is merely a means to ends and bodiless immortal alien advisers are going to be short on property rights.
Wow, from the title, I was expecting some sort of metaphysical woo-fest. But Tao is the name of a character? Ok, that alone makes it a whole lot more interesting (or, more precisely, less uninteresting). Add on the Big Idea, and this has now moved to my “must check out” list. :)
@haefennasiel: The Host is a novel by Peter Emschwiller and/or a Korean monster movie. Anyone who tries to tell you that the name refers to anything else is lying or deluded. ;)
Oooh. On the list it goes.
This is the first book I’ve purchased, sight unseen, as a result of a Big Idea post. Fascinating stuff, and fairly priced for Kindle! Looking forward to it :)
This Big Idea completely intrigued me. Great post.
Oh shit, another book I have to read. … OK, got it.
I am buying them faster than I can read them. What’s a fellow to do?
Weird coincidence. I’m a day behind on reading “Whatever”, because yesterday I had a bunch of errands to run, one of which was going to Barnes & Noble, where I picked up a copy of this just because it happened to catch my eye.
See also Flint and Drake’s “Belisarius” series, where essentially this happens (more specifically, good and bad time-travelling history-altering whisper-in-ear human descendant artifacts go back in time to ancient Roman times circa 530-540 AD…)