Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Reviews: Swag, The Lives of Tao

by Elmore Leonard
The late novelist Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and set many of his stories in and around the Metro Detroit area. I've read some of his works in the distant past. I was inspired to read this particular book after having a discussion about old time Detroit with a friend from New York, who although he's never been to Detroit, is a huge Leonard fan. Go figure. My friend recommended this book in the strongest possible terms. So not having read any Leonard in a long time, I decided to give this book a read. I picked it up used for cheap. This was a good book. It wasn't great but it was good. I am glad that I read it. I had forgotten how much Leonard was, like Stephen King, a master of description, of realistic conversations, of storytelling. He actually makes you think that you are there, that you are part of the story. This is a something that not every writer has but I really enjoy reading works by those who have it. Even if the plot sometimes drags or gets off course I still continue reading because I want to see what happens next. Before describing the plot though I do want to briefly tell you about Hudson's. Hudson's was the centerpiece jewel of downtown Detroit. It was the tallest department store in the world. And for my money it was the classiest. The internal architecture was a intoxicating mix of Art Deco and pseudo-Gothic. For a long time in Detroit, anything you ever wanted to have you could get from Hudson's. And not cheap crappy stuff made in China or Malaysia either, mind you. I'm talking 100% American son! Or Hudson's sold Old World high quality stuff that didn't fall apart six months after you bought it. Hudson's heyday occurred before I was born but when I was a young lad I still remember my mother taking me and my siblings there on Saturdays. Good memories.

Hudson's is long gone now. To show the kind of nostalgic appeal the Hudson's building had for SE Michigan residents of a certain age, before it was demolished and even afterwards people "liberated" fixtures, nameplates, elevator gate doors, even bricks, to remind themselves of a glorious time now gone forever. I think one of my relatives might even have a nameplate lying around somewhere. You can read more about Hudson's here if you like. Ok I went down that little detour in memory lane because as Swag is set in mid seventies Metro Detroit, Hudson's plays a key role in the story.

There are a number of characters in the story but I am only going to mention two, both because I don't want to spoil the story and because I am trying to write shorter reviews.
Frank Ryan is a Caucasian (race is a factor in this tale) used car salesman who is middling successful at his job. But he wants more. Frank has seen all the tricks when people try to steal cars and he's used all the tricks when he tries to (legally) steal people's money by selling them cars. So when Frank catches a guy who is driving a car off the lot without having checked with Frank he knows the game. Still he lets the fellow get off the lot before calling the police. When the car thief is arrested Frank refuses to identify him. As the thief was not actually arrested in the stolen car the case falls apart. Frank seeks the thief out. The thief is Ernest Stickley, another white man, but most people call him Stick. Stick is initially worried that Frank is gay and is coming on to him but it's not that. Frank has been doing some research about the numbers of armed robberies committed in and around Detroit. Quite a few robberies are never solved. Frank has a proposition for Stick. Frank has come up with a number of rules for armed robbery that he thinks protect the smart criminal from getting caught. If some of those (presumably black) idiots in Detroit can get away with it, then surely two men such as Frank and Stick can do well and avoid capture. Stick is not all that impressed by the voluble Frank but it seems like this plan just might work.

And for a short period of time the two men become successful armed robbers. They go where the money is but they're really more about volume than one big score. However as time goes on Frank gets the idea that he really is a criminal mastermind. He starts breaking more of his own rules. Stick remembers why he's not crazy about Frank in the first place. They get in over their heads and make some mistakes. Big ones. There are the normal amount of double crosses, set piece betrayals and prostitutes with hearts of gold. This was a quick read. I loved the constant invocation of local landmarks, hotels and streets. Obviously much has changed since the times in which this book was set but I enjoyed knowing exactly the areas where the lead characters were. It made the book real to me.

The Lives of Tao
by Wesley Chu
This book combines light satire of corporate life with James Bond type spy adventure, sci-fi Matrix type derring do, Hero's Journey and even a little romantic humor. Occasionally the transition back and forth between all these different tones can make the reader a little queasy but for all that it is an entertaining story if you can get past that. As I think is too common these days it's the first in a trilogy but it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone book.

Humanity is not the most intelligent species on the planet. Not by a long shot. That title actually belongs to the Quasing. The Quasing are a group of extremely intelligent aliens whose spaceship crash landed on Earth eons before the first humans even existed. Their bodies are not designed for this environment as they find it bone crushingly cold and too high pressure. In fact their bodies are little more than gaseous membranes, that are highly susceptible to earthly weather patterns. The Quasing thus can't survive on our planet for longer than a few minutes unless they take refuge in a living being's body. Animals are possible but humans are preferred. This is not quite possession per se but the Quasing are in part the source for many human myths and religions. They've started a few religions for their own purposes. The Quasing doesn't need permission from a human to enter a human body and it's unclear as to whether a human can expel a Quasing. They almost never voluntarily leave. Over time though the human and Quasing will enjoy a sort of symbiotic bond with each other. As long as they can jump from body to body (they are naturally expelled upon their host's death) a Quasing is effectively immortal from a human's point of view. The Quasing also has total recall access to all of its previous hosts' experiences and memories and can share those with its current host, if it is so inclined. They can communicate with their human host via telepathy.

The Quasing really don't like being on our planet. They want to go home. Very badly. Unfortunately they are unable to rebuild or "rebreed" their destroyed spaceship. Again, our environment is poison to them. So they decided, hundreds of thousands of years ago mind you, that as humans looked like they would be the dominant native species on this planet, the best thing to do was to help humanity increase its level of technology and science so that some day in the near future (near future by Quasing standards), humans would be able to recreate the Quasing ship and the Quasing would all leave. That was the plan anyway. Looking at early human behavior patterns the Quasing decided that humans would best be motivated to achieve scientific and leadership advancement by war. So for most of human existence the Quasing did their best to increase war and conflict by any means possible.

However around the 1300s some Quasing had an epiphany. They began to think that going down the path of violence, dominance and war might not be best for Quasing or humans. These aliens called themselves the Prophus. They were however, greatly outnumbered by the orthodox Genjix, who didn't care if every human died as along as they could get off this horrible planet. The two sides began a vicious civil war that hasn't stopped yet. One of the Prophus leaders, Tao (he invented T'ai Chi and was the Quasing of Genghis Khan) must quickly find a new host after his previous host is betrayed and killed. Unfortunately the closest host he can find is Roen Tan, an Asian-American lazy overweight out of shape IT analyst, who initially doesn't believe anything the voice in his head is telling him. And even if it is all true Roen has no interest in getting in shape and joining the Prophus service. That is unless it means he will meet pretty women. Roen starts to believe though when shortly after he hears Tao's "voice" strangers start following him and try to kill him. He also is impressed that Tao, having invented the coding language and processes which Roen uses, is able to perform 8 hrs of Roen's work in about 20 minutes. Tao has more important things for Roen to do. Roen is thrown into training and ultimately a war. Similar to The Matrix, some of his allies are a bit dismissive that the great Tao is really inside such a physically and mentally poor specimen as Roen. This was a fun book. It ran a little long at 450 pages. It's both creepy and funny that Quasing can't control humans except when the humans are asleep. Roen is none too pleased when he wakes up one morning to find that Tao has thrown out all of his sweets and junk food.
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