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Firsts: Dean Koontz on the 50th anniversary of his first novel, Star Quest

Contributed by
Jan 21, 2018

New York Times best-selling author Dean Koontz is a certified institution in popular world literature.

The prolific California resident is one of the most successful and widely read writers of the last century. His 91 horror, sci-fi, and suspense-thriller novels have been published in 38 languages and sold an estimated 450 million copies. This astronomical figure increases by more than 17 million copies per year, and titles like Watchers, Dragon Tears, Phantoms, Midnight, The Bad Place, and Odd Thomas have vaulted Koontz into the elite club of mega-sellers named Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Dr. Seuss.

Koontz' new Jane Hawk thriller, The Whispering Room, was published in November. But as Michael Fassbender's synthetic human David states in Prometheus, "Big things have small beginnings."

His first short novel, Star Quest, was published in 1968 (when Koontz was 23) as an Ace Double paperback together with Doom of the Green Planet by Emil Petaja. Star Quest's provocative cover, priced at 60 cents, was designed by the legendary Gray Morrow, who also co-created Marvel's magnificent muck monster, Man-Thing.

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The pulpy sci-fi plot centers around an interstellar war between rival alien races and a rebel who awakes to discover he's the brain of a flying robotic battle tank.

Here's the official synopsis:

"In a universe that had been ravaged by a thousand years of interplanetary warfare between the star-shattering Romaghins and the equally voracious Setessins, there seemed now but one thing that might bring the destruction to an end. That would be the right catalyst in the hands of the right people. The right catalyst could well be the individualist rebel, Tohm ... he who had once been a simple peasant and who had been forcibly changed into a fearfully armored instrument of mechanical warfare—the man-tank Jumbo Ten. But the right people? Could they possibly be the hated driftwood of biological warfare—those monsters of a cosmic no-man's land—the Muties?"

SYFY WIRE spoke with Koontz about Star Quest as he took a Saturday morning break from composing a fresh chapter and scratching the belly of his young Golden Retriever, Elsa.

Being the 50th anniversary of this first novel, Koontz took a nostalgic stroll down memory lane and resurrected some engaging details of how this imaginative little space opera came to be born.

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How did Star Quest come about and what was the inspiration for the story?

Dean Koontz: As a kid, all I read was science fiction. I started out with probably the Heinlein juvenile, young adult novels and then just read, read, read constantly in the field. So by the time I was graduating college it was very natural for me that that would be the genre I wanted to write it. And I had sold a number of short stories first, but I can't remember where that idea came from for that novel. All I know is that I wrote it over a summer between teaching jobs. I had no agent, you just sent things over the transom in those days. I sent it to Ace Books and they made me an offer for it.

One thing I vividly remember is that at that time, Ace paid $1,500 for one half of an Ace Double. They came back to me and said, "We can't pay you $1,500 because your novel is short, so we're gonna have to pay the guy on the other side of the double, $1,750, so we can only pay you $1,250." It was the first time I had ever sold anything in book length so I jumped at that and said, all right, I'll take the $1,250! Some years went by and I was still writing only in the science fiction genre and was somewhere where I ran into the author who was on the other side of that double. I said to him jokingly, that because of you I had to take $1,250 instead of $1,500. And he said, "What do you mean? They told me mine was shorter. I'd have to take $1,250!" I discovered we'd each been chiseled out of $250. Which explained to me why, when I looked at the book, it didn't seem to me that his was a lot longer than mine. And it was a little warning that there were certain publishers in the world that would save the $500 at the risk of annoying the hell out of the writer down the road. That's my biggest memory of that. I do sometimes say if I'd just thought of calling it Star Trek instead of Star Quest, maybe I would have been famous long before. (Laughs)

What lessons do you remember coming out of that initial experience?

Probably, don't write too fast. Because in those days I wrote much faster than I do now, or have for a long time. We were very poor. We'd been married with $150 and a used car. And by the time I was writing Star Quest I hadn't sold much in the way of fiction and was between teaching jobs, which didn't pay me very much either, and we needed the money. I was writing too fast and I did learn in those days to not write so fast, think it through, and write more drafts of what you're doing. That's why these days I write anywhere from 10 to 30 drafts a page before I move on to the next page. But in those days there wasn't time for that.

Who were some of your inspirations in the science fiction genre growing up?

I think the first writer I can remember reading in the field was Heinlein. When I went through the young adults I sort of graduated into the adult Heinleins. And also I loved Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury. Heinlein wrote things that had hard science fiction as part of them. I sort of drifted to those writers who weren't so into the hard science as they were into the human aspect of it all. I was largely inspired by people like Sturgeon and Bradbury, not that if you read Star Quest you would see that inspiration. I haven't looked at the book in many years, and in fact I've kept it out of print for 35 or 40 years. When you're young and beginning, at least in my case, I was young and beginning and stupid, and it took me a long time to learn to do better what I was not doing so well in those days.

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2018 is the 50th anniversary of Star Quest. Are there any plans for a reissue or special edition from Ace?

Absolutely not. Copyright laws say 70 years plus the life of an author, and that book is going to be out of print for at least another 70 years if I croaked right in the middle of this conversation.

The illustrator/artist Gray Morrow created the cover for your first novel. Were you pleased with how it turned out?

Yeah, I thought the cover was very cool. I didn't know Gray Morrow or know who he was, but I would have been happy in those days if they'd always used him for the covers. You have good ones and you have bad ones, and that is a good one. It has a little bit of a comic book edge, but in a very good way. And probably the book, if I remember it clearly at all, has a comic book edge to it as well.

Looking forward, do you have any interest in returning to more spacefaring type sci-fi stories?

Not spacefaring, but there's frequently a science fiction edge to what I do. I'm working on this series of novels now with a character named Jane Hawk, and at the core of it is a nanotech terror and I'm having fun with that. I remember Charlie Brown, who founded Locus, said, "You'll always be a science fiction writer," and I bristled at that. But what he meant was that I'd grown up in it and I'm fascinated by the ideas in it and will always use them no matter what genre I'm writing in. It's still something I gravitate to.